The removal of taxes on laptop, notebook and tablet computers will come as a relief to the many people for whom staying home to stay safe means being disconnected from services, livelihoods, social circles and the sheer joy of work and recreation.
In removing the tax, the Government has undone its error of re-imposing taxes on computers previously removed by the Panday administration over 20 years ago. That error was further compounded by the imposition of the seven-per cent online tax which put computers beyond the reach of many citizens. Until now, the Government’s fiscal approach suggested a view of computers as luxuries. That position has been eviscerated by Covid-19, which has forcefully proven personal computers are as intrinsic to modern living as pen, paper and the telephone were to older generations.
Instead of turning back the clock on taxes, the Government should have been speeding up the process of transforming T&T into a digital society with much less risk of being caught flat-footed by the pandemic of 2020.
Nonetheless, it was a lesson quickly learned, as evidenced by the extensive attention paid to expediting digital technology in the manifestos of all political parties that contested the August 10 general election. In announcing the tax removal, Finance Minister Colm Imbert also signalled plans to remove taxes later this year on mobile and digital equipment, cellphones, software and accessories, in line with its manifesto promise.
To underscore its commitment to creating a digital society, the same manifesto had promised the establishment of a Ministry of Technology and Digital Records, which has not materialised. Instead, the Public Administration portfolio has been expanded into a Ministry of Public Administration and Digital Transformation. Perhaps Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley has been persuaded to the view that the objective in digitising Government would be better achieved by mainstreaming it through the systems and processes of public administration. It makes sense.
However, e-government and a digital society are two different things. While the Government is talking transformation, it has to ensure what it does is truly transformational and not merely applying new technology to old ways of doing things. A case in point is the learning materials supplied to schools by the Ministry of Education for last week’s orientation week. While we understand the anxiety to deliver content and get the new school year started, the educational materials underscored just how much more needs to be done to rise to the combined challenges of digital and remote learning.
This challenge is not to be underestimated, given the long-standing failure to transform the education system from its colonial foundations, which is a conceptual and not technological issue. As the People’s Partnership government discovered, supplying children with laptops is almost meaningless if the learning environment remains the same.
Computer access is important and should be considered a standard tool in today’s world. However, its effectiveness depends on broadband infrastructure, proficiency in relevant applications and personal income to support data, among other things. More than these, however, is the cultural change needed to relinquish old ways of seeing and doing.