Sat | Aug 19, 2017

Editorial | A threatening army of Budget documents

Published:Sunday | July 10, 2016 | 7:00 AM

We now have this image, conjured by Robert Montague, of criminals, like Dickens' Fagin, huddled in back rooms somewhere and poring over Jamaica's Budget documents to determine the Government's spending priorities on security, divine vulnerabilities, and define areas for attack.

We wonder what such criminal analysts would have made of the security budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year. It is approximately J$51 billion, or just under nine per cent of the Government's projected spending for the year of J$590 billion. The constabulary is allocated J$32.56 billion, or 64 per cent of the security budget, 83 per cent of which it will use to pay salaries. The allocation to the police, however, does not include some of the money for the Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Task Force, which is financed, in part, from the J$571 million set aside for general administration by the central ministry.

The other big chunk of the security budget, $13.9 billion, goes to the Jamaica Defence Force. Seventy-nine per cent of it is to pay soldiers and support staff. Much of the rest of the allocation is of dribbles for a multiplicity of programmes, about which the Budget document provides precious little detail.

But Mr Montague, the national security minister, on the basis of a supposed lot of traffic on his ministry's website, to Budget documents, wants to exclude the portfolio's annual allocations from publication. "We are providing those who wish to cause mayhem with vital information," the minister said. "The days of innocence, as it relates to crime, are over ... . We are under attack."

 

STRUGGLE FOR LOGIC

 

Being charitable, Mr Montague struggles in vain for logic. There is no case to be made between Budget transparency, as limited as it is, and violent criminality in Jamaica.

Indeed, what Mr Montague should be striving for is greater openness in government, not less, if the administration of which he is a member is keen on rebuilding trust and confidence in the institutions of the State. Transparency is a greater bulwark against corruption and arbitrary action.

We, of course, accept that there may be some limited sensitive information having to do mainly with strategy and tactics and, sometimes, associated expenditure, whose existence in the public domain would be counterproductive. There are developed conventions for dealing with these, such as in camera briefings for committees of Parliament. But whole secret budgets cannot be the way.

In fact, Mr Montague runs the risk of cynics claiming, as some have already done, that his proposal is aimed at creating a facade with which to hide in the event of his inability to deliver on his promise over the next three years "the largest investment in the national security apparatus in our history".

"We are not talking millions, but billions," the minister promised. We hope he delivers, but it would be of value to Jamaicans to know if, and when, he does, the specific amounts and where they are to be spent.

In the meantime, it would be more useful for Mr Montague, rather than going off on quixotic quests against the mirage of a threatening army of Budget documents, to speak with clarity about his plans for confronting the real and immediate problem of a runaway and worsening crisis of violent crime, especially homicides.