Will hot air industry cure economic woes?

For whatever it’s worth, let me openly acknowledge how highly impressive was the prime minister’s most recent Budget performance, especially his demeanor during the final phase when he brought his presentation to a climax.

On TV he appeared absolutely relaxed—if a tad more pyknic than usual—as if indeed he were scheduled the next day to hand over to his ever faithful deputy Philip J. Pierre while he set out on vacation to one of his favorite homes away from home: Trinidad, Venezuela or Beijing.

Perhaps the normally tetchy prime minister had recently resurrected his friendship with Jack Grynberg and persuaded the oilman to withdraw his pending US$500 million lawsuit against the government—or he had finally discovered a safe way to deal with the ever-increasing public service payroll, not to mention a means by which to deliver promised jobs, jobs, jobs.

I all but hugged my TV when the prime minister in effect declared the leader of the opposition his equal. Of course, he didn’t put it quite like that. How could he when on so many earlier occasions he had created wall-to-wall doubt about the former prime minister’s intellect, his ability to paddle his own canoe, not to mention his being putty in the “renegade” hands of the more nefarious of his Cabinet colleagues?

They both had shared common experiences, the prime minister admitted last week. Both had confronted economic dragons. They also shared particular secrets, none more protected than the identity of the speechwriter responsible for the gibberish our erudite, ever-assenting governor general is annually required to read before the whole nation. (If not for her gubernatorial costumes, her colorful superwide-brimmed hats in particular, her face would be absolutely naked before the more critical eyes among her audience. Still we can imagine the Dame’s embarrassment!)

In any event, consider the current prime minister’s disappointment when his predecessor went where no prime minister had gone before. By all the sitting prime minister said last week, only Stephenson King had been, well, so absolutely déclassé as to have referred to Her Excellency’s Throne Speech in terms most pejorative, in the process spitting on an honored tradition. I couldn’t help wondering if the underscored faux pas might be a consequence of his never having attended finishing school!

I almost fell off my perch when the day’s leader of government said, in effect, that the main difference between him and his predecessor was the way they had in turn dealt with similar economic problems. While one had simply borrowed and borrowed and borrowed as if there were no price to pay in consequence, the other had demonstrated Spartan true grit and courage by doing what was absolutely necessary, legacy be damned. (To think I had earlier believed there was no such thing as a lesser evil, that evil was evil!)

Then again, how much courage does it take to tax a people as passive as Saint Lucians have become these last several years, not to say accommodating, however self-destructive in the short- and long-term?

On a more serious note, while addressing the subject of “stubborn high unemployment,” our prime minister said: “Low growth, along with declining productivity, is even more troubling . . . Given the limited fiscal space, proactive measures are needed to strengthen private investment in the country to absorb the pool of unemployed workers.”

In 1991, this was how John Compton addressed the problem: “With as many as 30,000 young people entering the work force annually, Saint Lucia needs a private sector investment of $75 million annually to accommodate them and, with a national savings ratio of not more than four percent, it is obvious that
most of this investment capital must come from outside. To compete for this capital Saint Lucia must offer a highly trained, highly productive and highly motivated work force or we will be trampled in the crush, attracting only the low pay, low tech, footloose industries with no stake in and no loyalty to our country or its workforce.”

In 1996, shortly before Kenny Anthony took office for the first time, this was how the record-setting prime-minister-for-a-year Vaughan Lewis addressed unemployment: “There can be no denying that the state of a country’s economy is a reflection of the quality of its labor force . . . In Saint Lucia a dispassionate look would reveal the labor force as bottom heavy, retail oriented, generally unskilled with limited work ethic.” Saint Lucia’s work force, said Lewis, was “generally not up to the standards required elsewhere for menial work.”

So now hear our prime minister on the same subject, 22 years after John Compton: “The unemployment data suggest that a large number of people have remained unemployed for extended periods. In addition, a large number of individuals are unable to find jobs which match their skills. The results of Saint Lucia’s Labour Market Needs Assessment, undertaken in the final quarter of 2012, revealed 60 percent of the labor market has not attained secondary education and therefore do not have the requisite skills required [sic] for gainful employment.”

Yes indeed, the more things change, the more our politicians spew hot air!

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