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It’s Budget time again

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Even as we move into the Christmas season, successfully opened last weekend with the launching of the revived and spectacularly growing Nine Mornings Festival, it will be BUDGET 2007 which will dominate the public debate and discussion over the next week. The 2007 Estimates were laid before Parliament on Wednesday in what is a prelude, the preliminary skirmishes to the ‘real thing’ when the Budget is presented next week.

The laying of the Estimates before the actual Budget presentation is one of the positive reforms made to streamline the process. Another, of much significance, has been the attempt at pre-Budget consultations by the Government including interaction with the public via the media.{{more}}

As one who has been associated with the call for the democratization of the Budgetary process, it is a step I welcome as being in the right direction. However five years after beginning this process, it is obvious that the democratization process needs to be taken to another level.

For one gets the impression that the consultations are somewhat hurriedly organized and not as well thought out as they ought to be by now. Five years ago, we could excuse these shortcomings and reason that they are far outweighed by the significance of the step itself.

We have had enough time to move from wetting parched lips to letting the thirsty drink.

The consultations need to be put on a more structured footing leading to ever-increasing participation by the critical economic actors in the process. They need to be more timely, allowing for serious reflection on concerns raised and proposals made and to begin to involve the communities themselves.

A prerequisite for this is enabling the people to participate in a more meaningful way, by building their capacity to do so.

No one who is concerned about national development will deny the need for public education on economic issues.

There has been some movement in this direction, largely fuelled by the energies of the Prime Minister and revolving around his utterings, but a national programme of economic and trade literacy is yet to emerge. If we are truly concerned about modernizing the economy and enhancing productivity, such a programme is a MUST and is OVERDUE. This is where the energies of civil society must be tapped, working together with the State, perhaps through an institution like the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDEC).

The Prime Minister will no doubt be approaching the Budget debate in a buoyant mood. In spite of the difficult times economically, he has already been promoting his “Christmas stocking” – further tax relief, duty-free Christmas barrels, million-and-a-half dollar Xmas roadwork – and would be delighted with the news of the WIBDECO banana bonus to cash-strapped farmers and the Privy Council’s ruling paving the way for the resumption of the Ottley Hall inquiry.

One can only hope that neither his buoyancy nor boundless optimism would blind him to the enormity of the tasks before us, to propel further economic development in very trying circumstances. We have to deal with a Caribbean Single Market for which we are still not prepared, a VAT system of which we still do not know enough, and very difficult negotiations with the European Union, the impact of which is still a mystery to most Vincentians. We have the herculean task of funding an international airport while stimulating economic diversification. Above all, we must motivate our people, to permit them to release their creative energies and adopt more positive attitudes to work and productivity.

With such an agenda before us, not forgetting to mention managing the burgeoning national debt, our Parliamentarians have their work cut out for them. Too much time is wasted in Parliament on trivial issues, the cut-and-thrust of local politics, with the P.M. himself and the Opposition Senators nearly always in the thick of it.

The P.M cannot continue to squander political capital as in the needless prosecution of minor political figures for sedition or on his flippant remarks on football.

He must be prepared to lift himself above reaction to whatever backwardness may merge from behind the UWI walls and not use it as an excuse for exclusion from the accreditation process. The WIBDECO pay-out must not blind us to the continued problems in banana and the continued failure to act decisively to complete the truncated restructuring process.

Hard decisions and bold, enlightened and embracing leadership are required. It is not beyond us all to face up to the tasks.

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