One of the beauties of democracy as we know it is that we cultivate politicians who are perfect people — individuals who are never wrong. Daily, it would appear, they defy the possible accuracy of the saying: “20 million Frenchmen could not be wrong”.
We invest hundreds of millions annually in the education of our people at all levels, spend significant sums on systems designed to improve their efficiency and then turn around and accept and perpetuate a modus operandi that suggests that a couple dozen people always know best.
Yesterday the Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure for fiscal year 2013/14 were tabled in the House of Assembly. In the grand scheme of managing our nation’s affairs this is a most important document because it sets out how Government will raise money over this period and how it will spend it. It is a process clearly set out in law.
This year, as has been the trend in recent years, the document deals in numbers that would boggle the minds of our fore parents were they around today. As with any budget, though, it really boils down to one number, which reveals itself either as a surplus or deficit. In the area of Government budgets, however, the concept of a surplus is as foreign as Grantley Adams International Airport being closed because of a snow storm.
Over the next year, starting April 1, Government projects that it will spend $1.2 billion more than it will take in — our little island dealing with deficits in the billions. And while as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product this figure is quite small, for a country as vulnerable as we are, any number this large should make us all sit up and take careful note.
But here’s our challenge, we suspect as they have done during the past five years, and the previous Government did in their 14 years, the present Government will structure the one-week debate in such a manner that the fiscal issues that ought to engage the attention of every Barbadians will never see the light of day.
It is now the norm for those who lead the debate to spend long hours on insignificant “heads”, deliberately so, in order that when the time allocated for discussion is exhausted the matters that would most likely place them on the defensive are never heard.
This absence of meaningful consideration of critical aspects of the national budget has the effect of turning a legitimate, legal process into a less than genuine budgetary exercise. It is that built-in weakness that allows our politicians to submit “budgets” with expenditure that is 50 per cent less than what might have been spent each of the previous four or five years and then return to Parliament six or seven months later for a whopping supplementary.
Would a reputable board of directors allow its management team to submit, for example, a budget that did not include a key component like the number one raw material or true human resource costs? And isn’t Parliament, for all intents and purposes our national board of directors?
The Estimates have been presented, the debate will get underway next Monday. We hope to be pleasantly surprised with the first genuine “budget” debate in nearly two decades, but we will not hold our breath while we wait!