No sacred cows

The following is a Sunday January 25, 1985 edition of an Express column that was written by Owen Baptiste.

INCREDIBLE as it seems, Prime Minister George Chambers has managed once more to deceive the vast majority of Trinidadians. “The Budget ain’t so bad,” people have been saying, unmindful, it appears, of the spectacular rise in the cost of living, of unprecedented retrenchment and bankruptcies, of declining company profits. The fact is, the 1985 Budget which was presented by Mr Chambers on January 9, lacks the wit, sagacity and hope one would expect in these desperate times and is little more than a shopkeeper’s list of impending price increases.

In 98 pages and after two and a half hours, Mr Chambers showed that the Government has simply resorted to a conglomerate of indirect taxation in order to raise the $9 billion which it figures it requires to maintain the status quo and its own survival. But by iding the details of these hikes in the Provisional Collection of Taxes Order, Mr Chambers succeeded in seducing this gullible population into thinking, at least for a few weeks, that his Government is still pursuing a benevolent philosophy of taking from the rich to give to the poor.

What is really the truth?

For starters, postage, driver’s permits and road permits are up by 100 per cent; alcohol and tobacco are up by 50 per cent; and there are now fees for immigration regulations, police certificates of character, and fees for tax exit certificates. In addition, vehicle licences have been increased, the levy on tote and forecast betting has been doubled, and there are increased charges for fees payable to the Registrar General and the Electrical Inspectorate.

I am not surprised that both trade unions and business organisations have seen through the deceptiveness of the Budget and have raised a hue and cry against it. But it is clear that the Government now sees itself to be incapable of raising the national output, as it urged in the Budget of 1982, through “work, discipline, investment and innovation” and has given up on the challenge of dealing decisively with our economic problems, so as to ensure, as it stated in last year’s Budget, that the “adjustment will be much smaller and considerably less painful”.

...and yet, the charade continues.

“The measures, which we have introduced during the last, three years,” said Mr Chambers, “were essential, prudent and timely, and have begun to achieve the intended results. I sense that this is now generally appreciated by the population and that there is a growing willingness throughout the nation to share in the task”. It is a statement that is disingenuous but which is calculated to ingratiate the Government in the hearts of a population that is more interested in playing mas rather than in building a nation.

Indeed, there is missing in this 1985 Budget the candour of Mr Chambers’ 1983 Budget Statement, and even though Minister of Education, Mr Overand Padmore speaks eloquently of us being our brothers’ keepers, he shies away from declaring what the impact of the Budget would be in specific terms by sneering at the Opposition’s economic spokesman, Mr Winston Dookeran, that he is not a seer man. But it is obvious, as Mr Padmore eventually admits, that “adjustment downwards cannot be a painless exercise,” and demands something more than sheer political power, billion-dollar reserves and brute force.

In his 73-minute response to the budget strategies outlined by Mr Chambers, and focusing on what he saw as “confusion and conflicting and contradictory objectives in the Government’s economic package for the year,” the Leader of the National Alliance Opposition, Mr Basdeo Panday, criticised its position on consumer prices, unemployment, food production, exports and government bureaucracy. It was no surprise, he said, that the World Bank had refused to lend money to Trinidad and Tobago because no banker would want to deal with a “bunch of incompetents with such an atrocious track record”.

Mr Panday’s low view of the Government’s ability to manage the affairs of the country was echoed in the remarks of the Chairman of the Tobago House of Assembly, Mr ANR Robinson who, on Friday when he launched the 1985 programme of the Management Development Centre in Tobago, poured scorn on the “talk of adjustment,” because, he said, it tended to imply that before the “oil boom” we were satisfied with our performance which, he said, was the truth, and the problems we face nowadays have nothing to do with the oil boom beginning or end. The problems “are simply our failure since Independence to manage the country, economy to maximise advantages to the population”.

The trouble is, it is not something of which the government was unaware, and, as Mr Robinson recalled, in his Budget Speech of 1973 Dr Eric Williams had warned that “failure to exercise restraint and institute controls would cause serious damage to the country.” Said Mr Robinson: “If we knew all of this at the start of the oil bonanza, what was lacking?” Simply the effort of will. “We knew what we ought to do, but we could not will ourselves to do it.” The tragedy is, Mr Chambers has not indicated in the Budget that he has the will to bring about the transform-ation in the society which we need to avoid the cataclysm Dr Williams appeared to sense.

The Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union, for instance, has stated in its own reaction to the Budget that the Government has descended to “picking the pockets of the working people”. The union stated ominously that the 12 per cent stamp duty on all bills of |entry, except food and drugs, is going to be passed on to the consumer and will result in a great leap in prices of nearly everything that working people consume and it pointed out that the prices of local foodstuffs will also escalate because of the dismantling of agricultural subsidies.

But, more gloomily, the OWTU predicted that the effects of the Budget “will hasten the social explosion that is not only inevitable in our society but is also imminent”. And, not surprisingly, this melancholic view is shared by the Bank and General Workers Union which, in criticising the lack of philosophical and spiritual content in the Budget and which saw it as only a “declaration for the mismanagement of the country’s financial resources,” stated that it would be no surprise to the BGWU and, we believe, to the rest of the national community, if “widespread social unrest at diverse levels do not follow”.

The question is, where will this unrest start? Among unemployed youth? Among retrenched workers? Or, among heavily taxed workers? In Jamaica last week for example, a 21 per cent hike in gas prices and varying increases in other petrol products sparked riots in Kingston that shut down the city and left at least a half a dozen people dead. When the calypso season is over and we have finished with Carnival, will we turn our rage on the tax increases which Mr Chambers has introduced? I doubt it.

It is clear, indeed, that the Government does not believe that such riots would happen in Trinidad and Tobago. Minister of State Enterprises, Mr Ronald Williams, was bold enough to state in his own contribution to the Budget debate that in certain areas the Budget has not been “harsh enough”.

Would the trouble then be among unemployed youth? The National Joint Action Committee, which has scheduled a national consultation today to discuss the Budget, has stated that it is “a slap in the face” of the youth of this country and is “most spiritually deflating in International Youth Year”. The Budget, it says, has indicated that the Government has abandoned all responsibility to provide the young people of Trinidad and Tobago with the opportunities of development. And, according to NJAC, it is unbelievable that a land so blessed with human and natural resources cannot find avenues to tap the energies and creativity of youth in a national programme to revitalise agriculture, industry and any other area of the national economy.

I agree.

Mr Chambers’ budget is not cause for despair. On the contrary, it is reason for rage and rebellion. It is now clear, indeed, that we must be prepared to reject the jaded leadership he continues to present and to demand instead a new consciousness which will be capable of re-constructing government and society more to our hearts desire. Or else in a few years’ time we will be doing what every colonial politician fears: throwing out the Westminster baby with the bath water.

Mark my words.

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