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Dreaming of Peter's pound of flesh

Published:Sunday | May 27, 2012 | 12:00 AM

André Wright, Opinion Editor

I was awakened from dreamy slumber yesterday morning by the clinking of champagne glasses among slick-suited businessmen and Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips as they celebrated a partial victory and a sleight of hand that duped the glassy-eyed hordes outside.

Before I woke up, the drama played out something like this:

"So, Peter," said Fat Cat Pat, running his fingers through his hair and leaning against the mahogany table in the dimly lit boardroom, "how did you pull it off? When we heard how Portia jumped the gun and talked about saving all these poor people, we thought the reform proposals were a dud. Not to mention the subcommittee's decision not to touch basic foods. But you really spun a wicked web and pulled it off."

A wry smile animated Peter's otherwise dull face. "Don't worry about Sista P, man. Sometimes you have to play good cop, bad cop. So we sent out Sista P, the bad cop, to give the poor-people rhetoric that rattled the private sector. Then, I was to be the good cop and craft a tough budget. So as the poor sucked Mama P's sweetie, I plunged the needle. And of course, some elements in Big Business will be happy.

"You mean the election campaign funders," said Fat Cat Pat.

"C'mon, you know we aren't hostage to money," said Peter, to howls of rib-tickling, belly-busting laughter around him.

"You have to understand that even though I held out the bait that we wouldn't tax basic foods, we taxed di backside out of them in so many other ways, they haven't even realised yet. For example, we taxed all fish and meat, except for chicken. And I stuck the carrot of the reduction of GCT from 17.5 per cent to 16.5 per cent into their mouth early in the Budget speech. But what those naive onlookers didn't realise is that I was just lining up all those small businesses with an increase of GCT on electricity from 10 per cent to 16.5 per cent.

"Listen, you think we were really committed to roll back GCT on electricity? You lick you head! Sista P ran off her mouth and we had to do some damage control.

"Yeah, the small-business people and a few householders will whine and moan for a while about how we've put them under pressure, but they'll shut up. They always do. The big problem is that businesses will actually pass on the additional overheads to the consumer, but then again, everyone will just cuss out the wicked JPS for high light bills. It's not really our fault, it's JPS's fault.

"And, of course, we've taxed cigarettes so much that folks have stopped buying the legitimate stuff and are smoking unprocessed tobacco. God knows not even I, much less the lickle man, could afford cigarettes if we taxed them further, but those who are escaping the high cig prices as they are now, we gwine lick dem too. Tough luck if poor people gonna feel it too. Of course, they won't realise because we are poor people's government."

Whack! Peter spun around to see who had given him a slap on the back.

"By the way, thanks for the drop in corporate tax for Big Business, Peter. For a moment, we thought you wouldn't give in to the proposals. But tell me something, you seem to forget that we proposed that even if you would reduce corporate income tax, you would do a little thing for the PAYE taxpayer. How come you didn't remember them?"

Peter's face furrowed. "You mad! You think I can give away sure for unsure. The majority of those people are middle class. Most of them won't be voting anyway. And anyhow, I'm sure you guys are going to pour most of the money saved from the reduced corporate income tax into investment and jobs. I know I can depend on you guys."

The room went silent. Peter studied their shifty eyes seeking assurance but found none. "You just keep on believing that, Peter," said another businessman, guffawing so hard his belly jumped out of his pants and hung over his belt.

"I need some fresh air," mumbled Peter, as he sidled out to the balcony overlooking the city.

A simple maid's reasoning

"Missa Peter," squeaked a shy-looking maid who crept up behind him, "take another drink."

"Tell me something, Sar, when the PNP was in Opposition, Mama P never said the Government was wicked to tax small people food like mackerel and bun? So how come she change har speech?"

Peter looked at her and saw gullibility personified. "Come on, you have to understand that when we are not in power, we have to criticise the Government, even if we believe they are doing the right thing. So, yes, we agreed with some of what the JLP wanted to implement a few years ago, but we couldn't support them. So Andrew was right about bitter medicine, but it's better for us to be the ones giving the medicine than the green man.

"So although you planned to eat oxtail and mutton and beef because Sista P is in charge, you better faget it! You also have to cut back on the beef patty and bully beef and condensed milk. And make sure to buy your food from the market vendors, because we're not troubling them. We just pressuring the rich supermarket man. They have money, so they can pay the tax. That's only fair taxation.

"But don't fret, we're not taxing pads."

Annie: "Yes, Sar. I liked how you called it in Parliament: 'sanitary equipment'!"

"But what about school book? When Portia forced the JLP to roll back GCT on books, she called it a 'victory for the poor'."

Memories flooded his mind as he recalled Portia staunchly defending 'poor people' in 2009: "Colleagues, let us all agree today in this House that GCT on computers and books should be repealed when the prime minister speaks next week, if not before," Portia said. "The tax on computers and books sends only one message to the youth of Jamaica and their families: access denied, progress delayed."

Annie: "So, Sar, you make it up as you go along."

"Yep," said Peter. "That's why we never remembered that we same one hit out at the JLP for taxing books the last time around, so we had to come up with something fast Friday morning to say we gonna channel school book buying through the ministry to get away from GCT."

"I understand, Sar. So the Ministry of Education and extortionist principal and teacher [as Bruce Golding said] going to buy and sell book now. At least that can supplement the sweetie and stationery business in the classroom, especially with the wage freeze. It don't make sense to me, but you are the expert."

Fat Cat Pat: "Annie, stop taking up the minister's time. This tax thing is bigger than you."

Peter re-entered the room, cigarette smoke hanging heavily.

"But seriously, Peter, you know we have confidence in you and it's really you we're backing to become leader of this country," said Fat Cat Pat.

Peter's cheeks reddened with pride and ambition as he saw Portia's star falling and his rising.

"Yep, we're 100 per cent behind ya, Peter," chimed another businessman, Mammon Backgammon, face pink with vodka. "But your problem, Peter, is that Mama P has kinda hung you out to dry. If this tax package flies, and is successful, she'll take all the credit and thump her chest as Jamaica's most fiscally prudent prime minister.

"If growth prospects fizzle, unemployment climbs and public discontentment rises, you'll be wearing the bull's eye on your back. Can't you see that's why she hasn't really owned this Budget? Close enough to take the glory but far enough to pin it on you and intervene to save the poor and afflicted. It's a great Machiavellian move."

Glass in one hand and cigarette in another, a bullet train of thoughts zipped through Peter's mind as he remembered the bruising internal elections, his estrangement from the leadership, the eventual rapprochement, the WikiLeaks revelations about his views on Portia, and the deputy prime minister snub.

"Damn it!"

Dreams aside

Of course, I'm sure the Peter Phillips in my dream yesterday morning is not remotely close to the real-deal Rock of Gibraltar.

Dreams aside, Dr Phillips has made some good, tough decisions on the revenue side of the 2012-13 Budget. Taking a stand against the waiver free-for-all that robbed the country of necessary revenue is a sure step in the right direction, and so too is milking accommodation tariffs from the tourism cow which has not sufficiently benefited Jamaica, as well as taxing dividends for residents.

But the grim reality is that some of the strategies may imperil inflationary targets and further erode the dwindling middle class. The 'every mickle mek a muckle' increments on electricity, the food basket, and yet another consumption tax on ethanol-based gasolene, among others, will soon sink in and add up.

The Phillips pro-austerity, anti-growth, anti-consumer spending Budget continues to ignore the imbalance of tax responsibility on the same core people, and there is little evidence, beyond his bluster and that of many finance ministers before him, that tax enforcers will collect from those who hide in the open.

The $60,000 tax on non-paying registered businesses is one thing, but the Government continues to show ultimate blind mercy to the thousands of unregistered entities making millions every year and pocketing it all.

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