. . . Have our chickens come home to roost?
With the annual debate on Government’s Estimates Of Revenue And Expenditure, more commonly referred to as the National Budget, now under way in our Parliament, we would not want to be counted among those who are dreading the week-long financial exercise, or those who have come to regard it as the most arduous form of boredom known to man.
We also would not wish to dissociate ourselves from the parliamentary process, in the same way that former Prime Minister Owen Arthur once did, describing the quality of participation by MPs as “poor-rakey”. For as Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler rightly stated this morning in leading off the debate, this is the “single most important exercise” on the parliamentary calendar.
Indeed, having perused the 400-page Estimates document, we believe there is much that the Freundel Stuart administration needs to give account of. Therefore, we intend to struggle through the more than 40-hour long process if we have to, knowing full well that our ears will most likely be taken on an unavoidable journey by the unnecessary into the unseemly, and at times sublime.
Verily there is a ton of questions we would hope to get answers to during the course of this week’s debate; but lest our motives be confused with those of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, we would wish to make it clear we are not at all driven by any election agenda.
Indeed, what is most troubling to us is the fact that Government’s spending continues to rise, given our still very tenuous economic state. Wasn’t cost-cutting one of the key objectives behind our most recent bitter dose of state-sponsored fiscal consolidation, or are we to take it that the financial enema which our Government ordered us to take, does not apply to our political directorate, even after over 3,000 public servants were sent home over the past two years while the rest of us have had to hold strain –– be it on our allowances, income tax rebates, outstanding pensions, and the like?
And since truth is like milk, which does not spoil, why is the Office of the Prime Minister deserving of a bigger vote in a year when our Government has seen it fit to cut the budget of the Child Care Board –– the main state agency focused on the welfare of this nation’s children.
The Prime Minister’s Office has been allocated $180.2 million, an almost $30 million increase on the current year’s spend of $151 million. Of that figure, $78.5 million is earmarked for National Defence and Security Preparedness, an increase of almost $6 million on the revised Estimates of 2015-2016.
In contrast, over $1 million was axed from the Child Care Board’s budget. The child welfare protection agency is due to get $20 million for the coming fiscal year.
Perhaps the Prime Minister can tell us how this squares with his Government’s 20/20 vision for Barbados. Given the obvious focus on fingerprinting of citizens, increased controls and defence, is it about “cracking some heads” and shooting some people?
And speaking of defence, why is it we just can’t seem to get rid of the financial bogeyman, if as the Minister of Finance and the Governor of the Central Bank Dr DeLisle Worrell would have us believe our economy is seeing a resurgence? Why then do the IMF and the ratings agencies continue to lurk in our economic corridors, warning of all manner of negative things, from further economic downgrade to a dollar devaluation?
In the meantime, our Government continues to borrow and borrow; or so it would seem. But to what financial end?
Which brings us to the vexed issue of health care. Did the Government even listen to anything that was said during its recent town hall series on financing of public health care, or was that simply a process of window dressing?
Granted, $700 million a year in health costs is too high, but will an immediate $9 million reduction in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital’s budget really bring about the recovery we need?
Equally baffling is the cut proposed to the Barbados Water Authority’s vote, at a time when thousands of Barbadians are reeling from a shortage of supply. In this regard, we look forward with bated breath to the presentation of Minister of Agriculture Dr David Estwick to see how exactly he feels about this development, and also the fact his colleague Mr Sinckler has seen it fit to cut $67.7 million from his ministry’s total budget.
Wasn’t Dr Estwick heard to say only recently that agriculture needed to be given greater national priority? Was this before the obvious cutting down to size? More importantly, will the doc’s proposed water remedy take effect? Or has it been deemed too far-fetched, only to be forgotten, much like his $5 billion UAE-supported economic strategy, or his much touted multimillion-dollar restructuring plan?
While we believe the proposed increase in the tourism budget is defendable, we are left to ask why there is need to extend our foreign affairs budget beyond what is already given, especially when Government has seen it fit to abandon paying fees for students at the University of The West Indies. And given the seemingly unending problems at Combermere, Springer Memorial, Lawrence T. Gay, we find it hard to stomach much of what is being fed to us these days as people-centred priorities.
Certainly, we hope some credible, if not soothing, answers will be forthcoming?