A Sweetheart Budget

 

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Category: Trinidad Politics 14 Sep 14

 

Dear Minister Larry Howai, it was a darling of a budget. I have always maintained that a truly civilised society is based on how you treat the most vulnerable amongst us. Naturally I thought it a sweetheart of a budget. It was the biggest ever—$64.6 billion solid and liquid dollars to be sliced up among just 1.3 million of us.

No oil-rich society can dispute your handouts and largesse to the people who need it the most. Flawless: extra funds for senior citizens, the tax amnesty, the personal allowances for people aged 60 and over, the NIS umbrella for those earning $3,000 and less, the raising of the disability grant, raising the minimum wage (from $12.50 to $15 an hour), the $1 million grant to the estate of soldiers killed in the line of duty, raising the public assistance grant, keeping the Gate programme safe so thousands of our young people can continue or start university degrees free of charge.

But after the flush of exuberance wore off, I looked at your budget more closely, with greater unease. I became unsure about the $500 monthly allocation for babies born to underprivileged families, wondering if some foolish girls will decide to have children just because of that.

Also the $410 million constituency development fund troubles me. Is it about handouts? Will it create gangs? How will this be managed? With what transparency? I don’t want to be a killjoy, but Mr Minister, what happens to the massive fixed costs to which you have committed, when oil and gas prices drop or fluctuate downwards?

What happens when the oil runs out in 20 years? I am not being alarmist. What happens to all the people who are now fourth- and fifth-generation beneficiaries of the makework programme when the money dries up?

I want you to think about how the allocation of money shapes a national psyche. People “look forward’ to a budget like a Christmas treat hamper, and not a tool or fishing line to help ourselves. For instance, if there were cash incentives for people who train in the tourism industry, or for Cepep workers who get a full-time job or work towards self-employment, or for mothers whose children get five CXCs, then I would say we are changing the way our people think. We are teaching our people to be self-sufficient, to be service-oriented, to be prepared for a time when the oil wells run dry.

Enough of that, Mr Minister; there is something else. It’s the elephant in the room, Mr Howai. We have dropped by a dramatic ten places in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Our global corruption perception is rising.

I agree that the Government has a weighty job to do, to account for such a large sum of public funds, and that it is tiresome if you want to get anything done, to go through it.

Procurement simply means standard rules to buying. The reason our people get nervous when we get past the glitter of giveaways in a budget of billions is: we start wondering about accountability. The Central Tenders Board (CTB), we all know, is required by law to follow certain procedures in the awarding of contracts. Its purpose is to maintain total transparency.

The PNM was practically thrown out for disregarding this and circumvented the tiresome rules and regulations of the CTB “in the interest of efficiency” through bodies like Udecott. We all know what happened there. It was set up expressly for not going through the CTB.

Sadly, the current Government is reportedly carrying on this policy, with parallel “service” bodies within each ministry that hand out construction projects, housing projects, education projects. These “service” entities are not subject to standard rules set up by the CTB. There is no process, no procedure, no transparency in how they are handed out. There is no way to prove who got what and under what criteria.

Although the Government’s intentions are good, they remain opaque, lack transparency, and are not open to scrutiny.

The blogger Afra Raymond has been working as head of the Joint Consultative Council (JCC) calling for the immediate passage of the Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Property Bill. This JCC, as you know, is made up of (a) the Contractors Association (b) the Institute of Architects (c) the Institute of Surveyors (d) the Board of Architecture (e) the T&T Society of Planners. Do you think you could inveigle your Cabinet to look at this, Mr Minister?

The JCC has been in the forefront of the call for a change in policy in public procurement for contracts in construction-related matters. But how to stem the tide? Raymond is convinced that passing the long overdue bill “would play an important part in greatly reducing the scope for waste and theft of public money”.

Yes, Mr Minister, a darling of a budget; until I decided to dig deeper.

It was the usual missed opportunity to allow us to leave poverty, lack of transparency and dependency behind, to become First World.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur