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Budgetary Reflections – Part 2

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I LEFT OFF last week on comments as to how our current two-party system not only contributes to and reinforces the political divisions in our country, but how it also masks open and rational discussion of national issues. The annual budget debate and indeed most parliamentary discussions, demonstrate this clearly.

The impression one gets is that both parties are more interested in winning the support of the public than in realistic discussion of the state of the nation’s affairs and the way forward for our people. There is no doubt that small countries like ours face enormous challenges in our quest for economic and social development and the international environment is not getting any more friendly. Small countries like ours face formidable barriers in being able to provide for the needs of our people and in maintaining their independence. It makes the partisan differences that we have locally pale into insignificance.

Yet, almost everything about our partisan battles seems to suggest otherwise. It is as if the ONLY way forward lies in supporting, practically blindly, this or that party.

One side must be ALWAYS RIGHT and the other, ALWAYS WRONG. Even at the annual Conventions of the parties there is a mortal fear of frank open public discussion on policy issues, the emphasis is on denigrating the opponents and glorifying the party leadership. Is this the best recipe formulating policy in the best interest of ALL our people?

Similarly in the Budget Debate, it would be a cardinal sin to voice even mild criticism of statements, no matter how irresponsible, untrue or even asinine, by one of your colleagues. It must be “the best Budget” on one side or “the worst” if on the other. Where does this get us, except for stoking more antagonism?

The matter of government spending without Parliamentary approval has again come up for public discussion. It is one of those issues where a parliamentary majority allows for all sorts of what is called “sleights of hand” to perform financial juggles and then provide explanations. Naturally, if you are a government supporter you go along with the explanations and vice versa. It does not matter what the facts are. That state of affairs again tells us that we are in dire need of serious political and constitutional reform.

But, so focused we all seem to be on who should win the next election, that the broader issues escape us. In this light, it is by no means accidental that neither party chose to dwell on the matter of electoral reform, which is but a part of the wider political and constitutional reform process. Ironically, election after election we have been plagued by accusations of election rigging and have had to grapple with a host of election petitions, the last of those still unresolved as we move towards yet another election. Not even in the Throne Speech was there any indication of this being on the political agenda.

But, for all its allegations of vote rigging, the Opposition has not made electoral reform a major issue which can affect the outcome of our elections.

A critical part of this must be electoral spending and the funding of political parties. The dangers are based on the old adage that “He who pays the piper calls the tune”, so it is in the interest of us all that there is strict control over campaign spending and the funding of political parties by sources, local and foreign.

As one side seeks and obtains more funding for expensive election campaigns, the other desperately seeks donors to match it, thereby escalating the process. None of this is of benefit to us as a people and there are many examples all around us of how such financial intervention can subvert the will of our people. We simply cannot ignore this grave threat to our democracy.

All our talk of governance and democracy will prove to be empty words unless we press for safeguards to that democracy and provide a basis for equal opportunity to participate in the political and electoral process. Given the multi-million dollar scale on which election campaigns are funded, how could any ordinary citizen stand a chance of being elected, outside of the two-party system, without the support of the wealthy? Does this not concern us as much as the potholes in the road of which we speak so loudly?

This may be a lone voice in the wilderness, but it will continue to agitate for such fundamental change.

● Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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