Daniel Thwaites | End of the beginning
I planned this week to review the administration's first year's performance, so I still want to squeeze that in. And I intended to acknowledge, in passing, the media-assisted, but mostly unwarranted low-level triumphalism. But honestly, I don't find the celebrations annoying or even inappropriate.
The Government has survived with a one-seat majority, settled down into governing, and is even doing reasonably well in some areas. In others, of course, we have slow-moving disasters in the making. The Cabinet ranges from an Ed Bartlett, with an easy 10/10, to a Ruel Reid, 0/10, with most falling somewhere in-between. So on balance, I would give them the old Roy Forrester: "Weatherwise, it's partially cloudy with chances of severe thunderstorms."
But following this week's Budget, where I might have said, "It's too early to judge," and left it at that, I now have to add a paraphrasing of Winnie (Churchill, not the Pooh): "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
With 'Phase It Een, Part Two', Audley has rubbed the remaining shine off the ball. By which I mean that things feel fundamentally different after the announcement of this second raft of taxes. Please note, it's the final weekend pretax rum. Stockpile, because you will need it.
Of course, this claating is all to (appear to) fulfil an unwise election promise. But notwithstanding the posturing that promises have been kept, in reality, they've long been cast aside, and grotesque monsters taken their place. When the electorate was being sold the bag-o'-tricks about an immediate $1.5-million income tax threshold, I can't recall hearing anything about "shifting to indirect taxation", although I can guarantee Jamaicans would have had something to say about their gas, electric, and food bills getting jacked up.
The main reason to recall the promises - and this is always reason enough - is for jocularity. It's worth remembering, for instance, that when Audley and Andrew were challenged about their numbers (Peter Phillips called them Tweedledee and Tweedledum), they insisted that they had done all the maths and that everything added up perfectly: There would be income tax relief without any new taxes being levied on the public.
They were challenged a second time, and again they denied knowledge of a tax package to be levelled on the people. Then history, by which I mean the archives of The Gleaner, will show they were challenged a third time, and that they denied a third time. That's when a cock crowed thrice.
Now everything is happening as was foretold by the prophets who warned, even then, that the plan would crucify poor people.
Never mind the florid imagery. Truth is, in light of Audley's Budget, if I were looking to package the story of the last year outside of the public-relations tinsel prosperity, the administration itself has gifted us about a dozen narrative arcs too complete and perfect for even a novelist to dream up. You will undoubtedly have your own favourites, but here are a few:
1. Opening: Fire-breathing Andrew denouncing "expropriation" of poor people's NHT money when, reeling from Audley's first stand at the Finance wicket, the previous Government enacted what we were then assured was a one-off dip into the Fund to forestall national bankruptcy;
Closing: This Budget, with Audley's bromides about children needing self-esteem while announcing an $11.4-billion drawdown ... just because ... well, there's an election promise that you will need to be able to argue that you kinda kept.
2. Opening: The sombre statements from the IMF and economists that the alarming levels of Jamaica's public debt had to be controlled as a matter of national survival;
Closing: This month's announcement that public debt is rising, but will be recorded as declining based on implementing a friendlier accounting policy. If you don't like the numbers, change how you count, not what you're doing.
3. Opening: The glee when Red Stripe's owners, having repatriated a national brand, announced expansion plans based on harvesting cassava. Cassava to rahtid! The 'green shoots' of the new economy.
Closing: The owners warned, last week, that it might withdraw the investment because of punishing taxes.
4. Opening: The giddiness of most of the trade unions during last year's electioneering when raising the income tax threshold effectively baited a hook that was then lowered in front their faces. RJR reported that Helene Davis Whyte, president of the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions, by no means the most enthusiastic of the lot, called the proposal "a good one".
Closing: Helene Davis Whyte describing as 'almost criminal' the burden coming for public-sector workers: "The tax package was not properly thought out and the personal income tax relief is not based on sound economic principles."
5. Opening: Jubilant people, hope refreshed, who had heard on the radio that "Anju 'Oliness" was going to give them an extra $18,000 every month.
Closing: The same people throwing back up the cables to tief light, because regularisation with the JPS is now definitely out of reach. They've just got the double whack of increased taxes on fuel, and application of GCT to small electricity consumption. In effect, a highly regressive double tax package on the upper lower class and the lower middle class who dare own a fridge and maybe a washing machine. Happy International Women's Day.
6. Opening: For this one we must climb back to the economically reckless blanket removal of means-testing from the public health system, which plunged an improving system downward by starving it of funds.
Closing: The announcement of GCT on group health plans, meaning, inevitably, more pressure on the overburdened public system. Thus, in the much-abused name of equity, Jamaica will return even more resolutely to health apartheid.
And even with all of those, I would probably go with the story of two building proposals to capture the essence of the derailment that I'm calling "the end of the beginning". The administration, instead of struggling to end the animal treatment of prison inmates by accepting some money from the British, haughtily rejects it, but signs an MOU with the Chinese to construct a comfortable Parliament.
- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.