It is the most unspectacular budget in the history of independent St Lucia.
Economic contraction, leads to cuts in spending, followed by revenue decline, leading, inexorably to more cuts. All the while, the opposition howls against wastage and clientel-ism . just he way it should be.
After at least six years of ‘knives out’ in Parliament, the picture of MPees actually debating line items in the budget was less rapturous that one might have hoped. Without brand name dramas like ‘Rochamel’ and ‘the Daher building dominating the discussion, it seemed like Parliament might actually start working on the course correction St Lucia has needed since the formation of the World Trade Organization.
Of course, there was the necessary amount of selective amnesia and hypocrisy from the opposition and equal amounts of self-congratulation from the government side. It’s only natural.
By Friday afternoon, it was clear that the sparks, friction and tensions that characterized the last six years in Parliament were noticeably absent. Even the media was reduced to reporting statistics.
The week started with a big blue polka dot hat, a declaration that St Lucia needs new vision and a new economic, if not agricultural revolution. (Food production revolution, anyone? Anyone?) The call for a new collective vision was not accompanied by an actual vision.
Climate change was hailed as the major new source of grant funding and capital project funding – very important to all proposal writers of the near future.
Then the prime minister took the podium on Thursday and if you blinked you missed it. A prime minister can take the whole first day of the budget outlining his vision. One of the strongest criticisms of the lean, mean new budget was that without the PM’s policy statement, the budget is just a bunch of numbers that are hard to interpret because no one knows the PM’s aims. And then, Richard Frederick goaded Kenny Anthony for the $2.9 million refurbishment of Vieux Fort Square, for the first time.
Arsene James wept over the debt and the black sigatoka crisis, job discrimination in Micoud South and the failure of at least three agro-processing plants to open. James also complained about congestion and overcrowding in cemeteries. Somehow, Frederick managed to interject a comment on the $2.9 million Vieux Fort Square into that.
Agriculture minister Moses JnBaptiste put the blame for the failure of the agro-plants to open on the previous Flambeau government, showing that even the government’s Taiwanese friends objected to the cost-cutting that Flambeau did to the original design, saying it made the buildings unsound. He also boasted his achievements as agriculture minister in clearing new ground for the next generation of modern farmers among other things.
Then Richard Frederick’s turn: He stood, fluffed his jacket, fixed his tie and did an incredibly moderate version of what he does best. (Maybe he was worn out from tearing former colleague Allen Chastanet to shreds in the media the night before.)
He complained about the lack of a policy statement preceding the budget. He complained that Labour has habitually and conscienciously ran budget deficits since 2001. Whether or not Flambeau ran actual budget deficits, he did not say, but added, “There’s a difference between proposing a budget deficit and running up a deficit due to unforeseen events like global recession. There was never any manifest intention on the part of our government to move a fiscal deficit budget.”
Flambeau, he insisted, always “contemplated surpluses,” although, “there may be circumstances where a shortfall in revenue inevitably occurs.”
The last budget deficit was $41 million and the coming deficit is estimated at $107 million.
In goading the prime minister again, Frederick mentioned him by name and was asked to refrain by the speaker.
“I apologize,” he replied. “I just wanted to elevate him beyond the status of prime minister as I suspect there will be a throne in Vieux Fort Square soon.”
He cited a $25 million increase in the public wage bill and the prime minister corrected him: “$33 million.”
He brought up the issue of numerous pricey consultants on government’s wage bill. Labour MPees groaned at the bold-faced hypocrisy, as they saw it. Frederick complimented civil servants for their heroic zero per cent stance.
“Don’t be naive,” Robert Lewis retorted.
“Let us forego any salary increases as MPees,” Frederick persisted.
“We did that already,” Harold Dalso replied.
“Let us stop the luxurious upgrading of offices,” Frederick went on, referring to a hypothetical Jacuzzi in prime ministerial offices.
“Did you put one there?” the prime minister inquired.
The speaker gave a 15 minute alert.
Frederick observed that he had not even gotten to his beloved constituency.
“I thought you were still introducing,” the speaker replied. “Up to now, I haven’t heard a debate on the estimates.”
Not from Frederick. But from everyone else – boring but well done. If only someone would give us a great climactic finish. Guess we have to wait for May 14th, when Parliament reconvenes.