Mon | Oct 23, 2017

Daniel Thwaites | RIP NHT (1976-2017)

Published:Sunday | July 2, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Don't for a minute think I'm saying that there aren't smart and good people working at the NHT and running the outfit. Not so at all.

However, The Gleaner carried a story titled 'NHT raid formalised! - Approved law gives Gov't power to take $46b from NHT through 2021', and reading it, I realised that the NHT is as dead as a nit. In particular, the article mentions that Junior Minister of Finance Audley Shaw, while passing the law to deduct billions from the Trust, reminded the House that he was doing so only "reluctantly".

"Nonsense!" you will protest, "NHT nuh dead! After dem still ah draw out mi money!" Relax, my dear naive novice. Permit me to explain.

If you think that the Fund will survive the machinations of the next few electoral cycles, you had better have another think, and also perhaps another drink. The key to the safe box has been discovered, the precedents for removing funds for other purposes are in place, and the extraction pipes fitted out with new faucets to reluctantly facilitate the outflows.

They will circle for a while, studying their prey, but eventually genius predators housed in both political parties will erupt with creative ways to reluctantly spend the Trust's money in their next set of manifestos. There will be resistance, and there will be naysayers. However, in the final analysis, the fat richness of the Trust will mesmerise and transfix the hungry, and in the epic struggle for electoral survival, some other massive siphon will reluctantly be lowered into the Trust's reserves.

At any rate, that's my prediction.

Of course, the NHT will continue to function as usual in the meantime, but the death blow has already landed. It's like the infamous Dim Mak delayed death touch in kung fu, popularised in movies like Kill Bill 2, which featured the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. The opponent will continue to function as normal for days, even weeks, after the fatal strike has been made. Then, one day, perhaps when he's having his morning coffee and leisurely reading an awesome Gleaner column, he might realise, "Holy mackerel! Mi dead to r**s!" as his heart instantly, but reluctantly, explodes.

 

THE DEATH TOUCH

 

"When did the delayed death touch occur?" you ask. Well, there are a few candidates for that dishonourable mention. And, ultimately, just like how it's a bit complicated to say exactly when the Trust was born, its passing will have to be explained as a series of events also.

First, the birth. In late 1975, Michael Manley introduced the NHT under the National Insurance Amendment Act. On October 8, 1975, the bill was formally brought forth. But it wasn't until December 17 that it was tabled. The first deductions began on January 9, 1976.

Now the slow death.

Actually, the late and lamented Gary Spaulding wrote an article a few years ago setting out the evolution of the Trust from housing facilitator to fund for special projects, and then on to social welfare provider and, now, (my words, not his) Supplemental Consolidated Fund.

This has truly been a bipartisan effort. And while I give some of the history, don't think I'm saying each deduction is of the same moral stature. That is not so. But each swipe, whatever the justification, made subsequent swipes easier to justify for the swipers, and easier to sell to the swipees (the public).

P.J. dipped into the Fund for $5 billion for an educational initiative back in 2003. Hey, you can see where P.J. was coming from. After all, education is the key! But, after all, it's not a house key. Portia, with her turn at the wicket, sliced off a $15-billion chunk for a scheme called the Inner City Housing Project. And again, that was housing, so it's arguably related to the mandate. But it wasn't likely that a true lending relationship between the Trust and beneficiaries was going to be part of that plan.

Then Bruce took a nibble at the cake for drought relief. And hey, let's face it, drought is a terrible affliction! But now you're starting to see that the NHT potato puddin' is very sweet, and everyone, however reluctant about it, wants a slice.

 

SPENDING SPREE

 

That was partially the background to the massive drawdown of $45 billion enacted by the Simpson Miller administration to pay back some of the debts Audley had racked up during his spending spree from 2009 to 2011. The other part of the background was, well, Audley's spending spree and his game of hide-and-go-seek with the IMF and World Bank.

All of which brings us now to the reluctant orchestration of another $46-billion assault.

Asked Dr Phillips: "What assurance can the Government give that at the end of any period, this is going to come to an end, or, is the view now that the NHT is to be a continuing source of fiscal financing for the recurrent Budget?"

Well, now, let's see! Can anyone in their right mind believe it will end with this? That after withdrawing about $11 billion every year for the better part of a decade, our righteous boys and gals in Parliament will determine it's time to turn off the spigot?

Reverse the hearse for the NHT. The sooner we accept that those funds have become exactly "a continuing source of fiscal financing for the recurrent Budget" - a hidden tax for pet projects like "1.5" and whatever other scam will follow that one - is the sooner it can be brought forthrightly into the ambit of fiscal responsibility rules and accountability. Reluctantly.

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