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Budget debates of the '70s (continued)

Published:Friday | April 23, 2010 | 4:00 AM
Neita

Lance Neita, Contributor

The Budget debates of the 1970s echoed the wide ideological differences between the two parties, and the kareba outfits worn by Government members in contrast to the conservative suits of the Opposition mirrored this disparity more eloquently than any speech could do in Gordon House.

As early as 1974, the People's National Party (PNP) had declared its intention to return to its socialist roots.

That was made as clear as a bell with Manley's Budget speech of May 27, 1975, announcing new levels of worker participation in the context of communicating "the central belief of democratic socialism that the people must control decision making at all levels - the political system, the nation's institutions, the economy".

It was an unequivocal pronouncement, and the country buzzed with excitement as it awaited Edward Seaga's response. The Opposition leader had already indicated that he would make his Budget presentation outside of the House in objection to Speaker Ripton McPherson's ruling to change the order of speeches by putting him to speak before, instead of after, the prime minister.

It was decided to go to the Pegasus instead, and the date chosen was June 6. More than 500 persons were present as Seaga warned again that the Government was on a collision course with bankruptcy, highlighting what he described as a dangerous balance of payments situation and an extraordinarily high level of government deficit expenditure.

The speech and the venue created much controversy, with threats of legal proceedings against Seaga over quotations made from a Bank of Jamaica document said to be confidential, and which purported to caution against a potential fall in foreign reserves with serious implications for the economy.

The following year, on April 29, 1976, the then finance minister, David Coore, presented a Consolidation Budget inclusive of extensive tax reform proposals.

Most revealing was Coore's comments that "the economy was extremely disappointing, the balance of payments critical, and negative growth recorded in 1975."

Seaga and his deputy leader, Hugh Shearer, punched holes in a number of areas, charging that the Government was spending too much on 'socialist style' programmes and that "a political atmosphere had been created which discouraged private sector investment".

The Government in turn claimed thousands of jobs had been created through its policies, and Manley brought up the issue of destabilisation allegedly being fostered to obstruct the country's progress.

Fiery debate

It was a fiery kind of pre-election debate, and a Gleaner editorial summed up at the end of the year: "The opening salvos of battle were sounded in Parliament during the Budget Debate in May ... It was obvious that the election would be held before the next Budget."

The PNP was returned to power in the general election held on December 15.

Coore presented the first budget for the new government on May 12, 1977. There was to be no additional taxation but looming in the background were negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which had got under way from 1976.

Prime Minister Manley, faced with chronic shortages and high import costs, announced an Emergency Production Plan as a prelude to a long-term production plan to be detailed after consultations later in the year with the private sector.

This was to be Coore's last budget presentation. He resigned suddenly on March 1, 1978, leaving his successor, Eric Bell, to face the music of the IMF.

The 1978 Parliament was officially opened by Sir Florizel Glasspole on May 16. The Throne Speech was read and all protocol observed. But there was little time for the customary formalities. A special sitting had been called that same evening to debate the programme of economic recovery prescribed by an extended fund facility agreement with the IMF to facilitate US$250 million for a three-year period.

Much was at stake for the country, and the midnight debate would have serious implications for the official Budget Debate, which was set to begin on June 8.

Lance Neita is a public relations and communications consultant. Comments may be sent to columns@gleanerjm.com or lanceneita@hotmail.com