Sun | Jan 19, 2020

Editorial | Dr Haughton’s walkback

Published:Sunday | December 15, 2019 | 12:45 AM

We take at face value André Haughton’s claim that his statement that a reduction in the rate of the general consumption tax (GCT) would be bad for the fiscal accounts wasn’t intended to undercut his party leader, Peter Phillips, which amounts to an apology of sorts. But in his circumlocutory walkback of his remarks, Dr Haughton raises questions about how, in the future, he will reconcile his separate roles as academic and politician, as well as of his, he suggests, inattentiveness to important matters of public discourse, which is bad for an academician and politician.

Dr Phillips recently committed his People’s National Party (PNP), if it forms the next administration, to a reduction of at least two percentage points, to 14.5 per cent, in the rate of GCT, which, based on the Government’s projection of revenue from tax this fiscal year, would mean a J$24-billion give-back to consumers. But Dr Haughton, who Dr Phillips appointed to the Senate earlier this year, and recently brought into his shadow cabinet as spokesman for planning and development, argued in the Upper House that this would be “fiddling with the numbers” that would weaken the gains of recent years in macroeconomic stability.

In his ‘apology’, in which he declared his political fealty to Dr Phillips, Dr Haughton said his utterances indicate the differences between “my academic orientation and my political inclination”, suggesting that the “intellectual freedom of speech” that comes with the former will, at times, be in collision with the principle of collective responsibility that comes with being part of the policymaking core of a political party.

The question, therefore, for Dr Haughton, is which of these principles will win the next time he faces a choice between either principle, notwithstanding his declaration that “we all strive dearly to the principle of collective responsibility”. Striving dearly to do something, however, is not a definitive commitment to its achievement.

The other significant observation of Dr Haughton’s attempt at amelioration is his claim of having been “unaware of previous discussions and decision on tax policy, which falls in the portfolio of the party’s leader of the opposition and the shadow minister of finance”.

TWO PROBLEMS

This is problematic on two fronts.

First, the shadow finance minister, Mark Golding, first raised the possibility of a GCT reduction during his Budget debate intervention in March, when he argued that a J$14 billion tax give-back, largely via reduction in stamp duties on transactions, was too little and geared too much to the well-to-do and wealthy. As an academic and university lecturer in economics, Dr Haughton would have been expected to have been paying attention to the flotation of such a significant policy idea.

Second, Dr Phillips advanced the proposal at a meeting of the PNP’s National Executive Council, at which he gave a specific rate for the reduction of GCT. In his Senate statement, Dr Haughton suggested that his party leader had “tossed out a bait”, which, presumably, was swallowed by some members of the Government. That, therefore, doesn’t sound like he was ignorant of its predicate, or precedent.

Obviously, Dr Haughton was made to eat crow, but he clearly declined to swallow the whole thing. He, we suspect, has done enough to ensure an immediate reset with his party leader. But there remains dangling ends that could become entangled with something else, posing the danger of unravelling the whole thing.