Fri | Dec 9, 2016

NHT fund flexi-raped

Published:Sunday | November 9, 2014 | 12:00 AM

The Government cannot on the one hand be preaching the virtue and necessity of sound fiscal management, while on the other flouting it. But by all appearances, the NHT Fund is about to get one of those new-fangled flexi-rapes recently discovered up in the Senate. The board with responsibility has determined that instead of building houses, they’re now venture capitalists entitled to plonk a few hundred million into the tourism game because, y’know, the NHT is full of tourism expertise.

So I am of the view that this decision to invest in a failing tourist attraction requiring many millions more for upgrade is a staggeringly poor one. Dear Government, reverse it! Mannaz an’ respect, but stop it! Back it up! What logic compels Government to divest the profitable Dunn’s River Falls but acquire the losing Outameni?

However much this decision may be legally defensible (something yet to be determined), it perverts the fund’s purpose, which is to put more Jamaicans into houses. In that way, it undermines the Trust. But worse than that, it is undermining a still more important trust, spoken of not so long ago as a new covenant of responsibility that would require reciprocal sacrifice from all for the nation’s future. Representatives of the Government explained that a rigorous programme of fiscal discipline was the only way out of the massive debt hole that had been dug by successive administrations.

In fact, as part of that initial set of proposals, one of Government’s first moves was to raid the NHT fund for budgetary support. I supported that raid. My thinking then, as now, was that the money had in reality already been spent when Audley turned into Santa Claus in the run-up to the last general election. I felt it was necessary to avoid even heavier taxation measures that could threaten relative social peace and order, and it lessened the size of the NDX from investors still adjusting to the JDX.

Furthermore, I felt then, although less so now, that there was little point in preserving the NHT in its plump, round, fluffy splendour while everything and everyone around it starved.

Today, I am far less certain of the wisdom of my original thinking, because some government players seem incapable of knowing when to stop. Having leaned on the public’s confidence to withdraw money for what was described as (and in reality was) an unprecedented financial crisis, others have now decided to turn the NHT into just another river feeding into the Consolidated Fund. Or worse.

These were precisely the fears expressed by the critics of the original dip into the fund. Hence, I concede that they have been proven correct, at least as regards the propensity of some in Government to see the first dip as an opening for further predation. They, not I, were better judges.

In short, I am in agreement with the expanding tidal wave of outrage. The background to the decision is sketchy, and its purpose in relation to the NHT’s mission is murky. It’s not clear when the decision was initially taken, and if or when the payment for the property was made. It’s unclear whether this matter was brought to the prime minister, who has direct portfolio responsibility for the NHT, or whether the matter was discussed at Cabinet. So there’s a lot

left to learn, but the broad outlines have set off every alarm.

All told, I cannot in good conscience say that the administration has been especially poor with husbanding resources. In fact, the opposite has been true, and it has held the reins tight despite bleeding politically for it.

THE WRONG FOOT

However, there have been some mistakes whose symbolism has already eroded the minimal public confidence that can be mustered in our chronically low-trust society. One was the foolish purchase of SUVs right out the gate. It immediately set things on the wrong foot, and gave an impression of veniality. The administration’s reflexive critics have enjoyed it, and I don’t blame them.

So this Outameni acquisition

undermines the credibility of the Government. But far worse than that, the already tenuous social buy-in to the programme of fiscal consolidation is at further risk. This puts way more than just an administration in jeopardy.

Jamaica can switch out administrations, but it won’t be able to switch off its problems. It’s the country under threat when this kind of behaviour threatens to return us to the path that we’ve unsuccessfully pursued this past 40 years, of getting and spending and laying waste our powers.

In any event, how does this purchase comport with the core business of the NHT? What of the original mandate to provide housing for the people of Jamaica? One oft-repeated estimate is that Jamaican needs 15,000 new housing units annually. Are those being built? No. On top of that, inner-city housing renewal is kaput. When it’s mentioned, you hear it can’t happen, or can’t happen yet, because the NHT is Outamoney. Outamoney, but not Outameni!

If the fund is so overwhelmed with cash, give it back to the contributors, or discontinue the tax. To put it exceedingly mildly, we must acknowledge that people are far better and more efficient at spending their own money than is the Government. That may just be the sort of stimulus the economy needs, a five per cent pay hike for everyone. Who knows? Some enterprising private-sector interest might even pioneer the novelty of inviting people to spend their pay increase to buy some stock in Outameni and turn the company around.

n Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.