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Budget time again!

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It’s Budget time again. On Tuesday of this week, Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Dr. Ralph Gonsalves tabled the 2006 Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure before the House of Assembly.

Unfortunately and regrettably the ludicrous “cat-and-mouse” games in the House once more robbed us of any semblance of debate on the Estimates, a debate which allows the Parliamentarians to warm up for the full Budget debate next week. We are really being short-changed here.{{more}}

Pre-Budget banter

The 2006 Budget is this year being presented in January because of the General Elections of last December. In that regard it allowed both political parties to engage in some pre-Budget electioneering. With the Prime Minister’s pre-election Independence address having outlined a number of promised benefits to workers, those who are lowest paid most of all, there was much speculation as to whether those promises would be kept. The comments varied from “election gimmicky” to warnings that those promises would turn out to be empty ones. Even post-elections, there was some idle talk that the Budget would bring hardship in terms of new taxes and higher prices.

Promises kept

These were quashed by the Prime Minister in laying the Estimates. Whether geared to elections or not, the fact remains that the promises have been kept and no patriot, irrespective of his or her politics, can begrudge those grossly underpaid workers their meagre pittance. Even the 100 per cent increases for some of these still amount to a mere $400 to $500 take-home pay monthly. If we are to truly help people to lift themselves out of poverty, then we must put measures in place to ensure that there must be at some point a national minimum LIVING WAGE.

This is an economic challenge as well as a social one for poverty cannot be ended by charity and handout. The economy must generate the wealth which would make it possible to pay out such basic wages. It means that this Budget, those following it and national economic programmes as a whole, must address these fundamental questions of economic and social development. The Budget is but one tool used by the state which should seek that sort of outcome.

So it’s on to next Monday, the Governor-General’s Throne Speech (oh! When will we be rid of these earthly Kingdoms?), the Budget address and then the Bassa Bassa, the Tom, Dick and Margie show.

We are watching!

To be fair, however, the quality of Budget debates has been improving over the years and there is every reason to hope for that trend to continue. The partisanship is still there, so there will be a lot of playing to the gallery, but the Parliamentarians must know that we are watching and expect them to address the issues, not just try to play on our emotions.

On occasions like the Budget debate, it becomes even more glaring what continues to be missing from our Parliament, voices not just from a partisan political background, but coming from various sectors and echoing the views and interests of those sectors.

Change needed

A House with representatives of labour, the private sector, organized labour, youth and women, farmers and religious organizations included in it, in their own right, could bring not just a breath of fresh air to the debate, but change the atmosphere entirely. For this reason alone, though there are equally compelling others, the proposals for Constitutional Reform submitted by the Parliament-established Commission ought to be taken very seriously.

The problem in the country is to get citizens to listen to and understand the Budget, free of their political blinkers. Even the good times are bad under such a wasteful adversarial system as we have here so the Budget is characterized according to who is presenting it and what are the political issues of the day. Some progress has been made by the past administration in resuming public broadcast of Parliamentary proceedings since 2001, and the move to hold pre-Budget consultations is one which I strongly support.

The process however needs to be more measured and structured so as to allow for even greater participation. No doubt ideas from Civil Society Organizations can only help to improve the mechanisms and process.

Our national Budget is too important an exercise to be left to cheap politicking. It is an opportunity for us to look more closely at the national economy and policies governing our lives, an opportunity which we must grasp with both hands.

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