EDITORIAL - Have they heard that there's a crisis?
Published: Sunday | March 29, 2009
The idea was that the finance minister, ahead of laying the budget document for the ensuing fiscal year, would brief Parliament on its broad outlines, including spending and revenue projections, into the medium term. The suggestion was not particularly novel, modelled broadly on the briefings that Gordon Brown, then Britain's chancellor of the exchequer, gave annually to the City, and his consultations with MPs and Westminster.
No substantial discourse
At the time, Omar Davies, then Jamaican finance minister, was forced to roll back his plan to raise the tax on petroleum. And he extended the previously cursory review of the budget numbers by parliamentarians ahead of the formal debate.
What never happened was substantial discourse, outside the House debate, on the deeper philosophical frame in which the budget was cast, or the economic circumstances in which it was implemented. In short, there has never been a really serious effort at consultation or consensus-building around the budget.
That, of course, is not the fault solely of the finance minister or the Government. In Jamaica's deeply divisive political culture, opposition parties often find it easier, or more beneficial, to be obstructionist, if not aloof. For engagement, they reckon, might bring credit to the Government.
Ten years on from the gas riots, Jamaica is facing a situation that, potentially, is qualitatively worse than the circumstances that triggered the events of 1999: the global meltdown, which, by consensus, is the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression 80 years ago. Already, thousands of people have lost jobs in the private sector; the country's alumina industry is devastated; remittances are in free fall; the Government's revenue has taken a hard blow; the fiscal deficit is near seven per cent of GDP. And things are likely to get worse.
It is in that context that Audley Shaw, who used to be on the other side, will present his budget next month. These are indeed, tough times, demanding hard decisions.
If Mr Shaw had listened to the presentations at the forum last week put on by Dr Peter Phillips' Roxborough Institute, he would have heard the call for a new, post-partisan approach to the crisis. It is necessary to ease not only the economic stress, but to head off profoundly bad economic outcomes. Or, as Professor Don Robotham put it: The situation insists upon a new kind of political leadership and a retreat from the culture of blame.
Building of consensus
That demands first, a levelling with the people, telling them the truth and preparing them for the difficulties ahead. Unfor-tunately, the Government, up to now, has not been good at this, or at framing a credible response.
This building of consensus necessary to meet the tough times requires the administration to be respectful of the Opposition, appreciating its support in the country. Which brings us back to the Budget process recommended by the Moses Committee, which, even at this late stage, we commend to Mr Shaw and Prime Minister Golding. Even now, we suggest to the PM that he convene a Vale Royal-type summit on the matter.
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