Mon | Apr 24, 2017

Ronald Thwaites | Heading in the right direction?

Published:Monday | March 13, 2017 | 3:00 AM
Ronald Thwaites
Prime Minister Andrew Holness goes through a file while listening to Finance Minister Audley Shaw before Shaw delivered his Budget Debate speech last Thursday.
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"We're heading in the right direction!" was Audley Shaw's somewhat muted Budget-opening rallying cry last Thursday. Of course, this was before the nearly $30-billion revenue tsunami that was to follow two hours later.

In-between, there was a noticeable change of language and tone from the finance minister, as citizens, up to now generally willing to give the administration the benefit of most doubts for earnest efforts, obviously begin to see and feel the deception inherent in the fiscal policies.

How can it be heading in the right direction to continue pauperising the many with increased living expenses in order to further favour a fraction of the working lower-middle class, whose extra cash is itself to be ravaged by higher prices for their essential purchases?

The narrative has changed since last year. No longer is the talk about workers buying another car, building an extra room, or hiring a domestic. Those studying the economy have debunked that prating.

Now, the lapse is into economic theory about the beauty of indirect taxation by comparison to PAYE, as if we do not remember that more than 70 per cent of taxation is already indirect with the majority of our people, with devalued or no regular earnings, having no alternative but to pay the inevitable higher travel and electricity costs.

 

RISING HEALTH COSTS

 

How can it be heading in the right direction to add 16.5 per cent to health insurance premiums, when, by the Government's own logic, they should be incentivising more Jamaicans to help provide for their health costs, not least because the State is clearly unable to afford free health care?

And how can it be heading in the right direction to milk the Housing Trust for another $11.4 billion when you same one promised never to do so; when the money does not belong to you, and when the net effect of doing what you recently cursed is to prevent another $11.4 billion worth of houses to be built?

It is going in the right direction to tax the hell out of cigarettes. To do so is to ultimately avoid disease and save lives. In fact, the tax should be higher still. And by parity of reasoning, stand by for a tax on ganja spliffs. The only moral use of the revenue from addictive substances is to fund a massive and sustained education programme about their lethal toxins.

It is going in the right direction to say again that the only firm footing for 'prosperity' is not sloganeering from the JLP back benches, but the appropriate high-level education and training of our people. So the added money for PATH is welcome, but it does not even keep up with inflation.

Providing a meal for students on PATH for two additional days a week is commendable, except that too many schools are having great difficulty to collect the subsidy for the present offering of three days.

And expect further that the provision of breakfast for the 30-40 per cent of children who come to school poorly nourished is still grossly underfunded, and the Government's own statistics are telling us that there are more than 200,000 more of us who need to be on PATH but can't get on. Poverty is increasing, not decreasing.

Reducing the interest rate on student loans is surely heading in the right direction, except that the greater problem in tertiary funding is the lack of sufficient capital to lend to more students, and this was not addressed. The Students' Loan Bureau is underfunded given the growing demand.

But where you really had to watch the artful language and switch of tone was in the minister's comments on banking fees. He was spot on in describing the fraud of institutions lending the $45 billion of depositors' money in dormant accounts for their own profit while penalising their own savers for the impudence of leaving their money unattended with them.

Then came the weak bit about not wanting to interfere in the market and the promise of another study and a commission to follow, even as the rape of savers continues unabated.

Audley, Honourable Minister, tell us straight which class of people you defend here. Will you be supporting Fitz Jackson's bill (which Karl and yourself are part babyfathers) and let nothing deflect or delay it?

From the back benches, most of us, struggling to represent people mostly unemployed, minimum-waged, earning under $1.5 million a year, children to support, facing ever-higher food and travel prices that take up everything we have, are we moving in the right direction?

- Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Central Kingston and opposition spokesman on education and training. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.