Enveloped in impenetrable darkness

by Rick Wayne

Castries, St. Lucia – If further proof were needed of the immeasurable arrogance, unconscionable profligacy, unabashed ineptitude and plain unabashed sans honte that have rendered a hundred times worse the multiple effects of the economic crisis on the trusting people of the OECS, the seeker of truth need look no further than the national addresses of our respective HOGs, especially at Budget time.

The latest national address by Grenada’s Keith Mitchell might easily have been plagiarized from our own prime minister’s files. It starts out with the usual tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of his countrymen’s well-established Solomonic perspicuity that had not only returned him yet again to office, but also handed him absolute control of a House unencumbered by opposition horseflies.

Referring to himself on the occasion as “your chief public servant,” he reminded his ostensible masters that eight months earlier they had “voted for hope, jobs and opportunity.” In return, his government had, if by his self-serving account alone, “worked hard, each and every day” to deliver on its commitments.

Mitchell said his government had “generated short-term employment opportunities, improved basic healthcare, begun to repair neglected roads and expanded safety nets, increased support to farmers – and delivered salary increases to public servants for the first time in five years.”

Was he among the serviced lucky public servants? He neglected to tell.

One of the region’s more seasoned political angels, Mitchell had obviously learned when to tread carefully and not rush in as only fools tend to do. His detractors would have no easy time proving he had not been true to his campaign promises. Not when he had cautiously wrapped every uttered word in a coat of ambiguity.

The people had voted for “hope.” They had voted for “opportunity.” If eight months following his election Grenadians continued to be hopeless, if they remained for the most part jobless, they had only themselves to blame, not their leader.

For where else do hope and opportunity reside if not in the hearts of individuals? Hope remained a faith thing; either you were a believer in evidence of things not seen or you were a useless pessimist.

The unspoken message from the Grenadian leader was that he expected his people to keep on hoping for better days, regardless of how long the wait. Sound familiar?

On the other hand, it seems the public servants of Grenada – as in Saint Lucia – believed less in hope than in hard cash.

Which explained why in the aftermath of Mitchell’s landslide election victory some had received only “opportunities” for this and that, including for short-term employment, while others had received pay increases, even if that meant there would be no money left “for progress in healthcare, education, roads and youth development or investment in the productive sectors that are all so vital for growth in our economy.”

Mitchell’s discombobulating admission was that out of every dollar collected by the Grenada government “70 cents went to public servants, while 30 cents went toward debt payments.”

The question, proferred the Grenadian leader, most surprisingly, is: “How did we get there.”

You read that right, dear reader. Mitchell wanted to know how his public service came to be the nation’s greediest gobbler of scarce resources! Even more shocking, though admittedly somewhat refreshing, was what followed.

Unlike his Saint Lucian counterpart, Mitchell chose to come clean. Answering his own transparent question, he said: “The basic reason is that successive governments – including those I have led – have spent far more than we have collected.” He might’ve added: with impunity!

Predictably he went on to list the “various shocks since 2010” that had exacerbated Grenada’s already dismal fiscal situation. Hurricanes, the world recession and, of course (it had to come up) “the infighting and the indecision of the immediate past administration.”

Doubtless sensing what the people really wanted to hear, Mitchell followed up with another question, this one a tad tougher to answer: How to bring under control the killing problem of his country’s fiscal imbalance?

His solution: “We must fix it through our home-grown program of fiscal adjustment and fiscal reform.”

The first prescription would require that his fellow Grenadians suffer for another four years the inevitable consequences of the mindless borrowing and spending that for countless years they had endorsed with their ovine inclinations and wall-to-wall catatonia, to say nothing of that widespread, contagious, crippling Caribbean condition known as hackititis.

If minutes earlier he had blamed much of Grenada’s economic woes on the previous one-term government’s “infighting and indecisiveness,” now he wanted all Grenadians to know two choices confronted them: affix blame or affix solutions. His government, he said, was “focused on fixing problems.”

If only the OECS HOGs had always focused on avoiding, rather than fixing, their national problems. Now Mitchell was ready to express his government’s “profound appreciation” to all the social partners for their sense of responsibility and their willingness to engage in these issues and to find a path forward together.”

One particular grouping came in for extra-special recognition. The Grenadian leader expressed his government’s “profound appreciation” to the Conference of Churches for their “initiative on the issue of public debt and their support for a comprehensive debt-restructuring program.”

The Prime Minister said he and his Cabinet colleagues had traveled island-wide discussing with fellow Grenadians the way forward, which of course brought to mind what has lately been occurring here almost every weekend – whether or not over somebody’s dead body.

If only similar comminglings had preceded the reckless borrowing in the people’s name of countless millions of dollars, we may well have avoided the predictable disasters, for which the people always pay!

He arrived at the Caribbean’s favorite chimera. The restructuring he had in mind had nothing to do with the International Monetary Fund. It was strictly a home-grown idea. “We do not need the IMF to tell us we are spending far more than we collect,” said the prime minister. However, that did not mean his government could also do without lifebelts from the IMF and members of the international community, whom he said were standing by to provide financial and technical support “to secure Grenada’s public financing.”

He said Grenada now needed to implement a combination of expenditure cuts and revenue enhancement to close the monthly financing shortfalls. The single largest government expenditure, he acknowledged perhaps for the fifth time, is the wage bill.

He went on: “I have stated before and I repeat: our government does not intend to retrench public officers. However, we must control the expansion of the wage bill.

“We simply cannot continue with the same 70 cents from every dollar collected going to salaries and pensions” – obviously a miracle dimensionally equal to that of the loaves and the fishes.

He issued a desperate SOS: “The wage bill is the government’s single largest expenditure. If this issue is not settled, the home-grown program will be jeopardised, which means Grenada will lose the financial resources of more than a hundred million US dollars to support Grenada’s recovery and jobs creation. Government cannot proceed with significant wage increases and fringe benefits at the same time it is seeking significant debt relief from creditors and significant financial resources from countries that are themselves facing their own economic challenges.”

Over and over Mitchell returned to the core problem: “The success or failure of the home-grown program is directly linked with the issue of the government’s wage bill. We must settle this issue very soon so we can finalise the home-grown program and the 2014 budget. Government is committed to reducing all non-personal expenditure by at least 20 percent. Already we have reduced government’s mobile phone bill by 40 percent; international travel by almost 40 percent.”

What any of that had to do with salaries and wages, he alone knows.

He touched on tougher tax regimes, hinted at imported personnel to guarantee better tax collection, but saved the killer details for his budget presentation. All of which sounded a helluva lot like IMF directives!

Meanwhile, for our own globe-trotting parliamentary representatives it’s business as usual, with all our eggs in the VAT basket.

Particularly famous as we are for enjoying the miseries of others, we callously point to Grenada as a sister island worse off that we are; Barbados too, as if to say we should thank providence that things are not yet quite as bad here. But since what had taken Grenada and Barbados down to their knees is also here, alive, and unchallenged, how long before we are crawling on our naked bellies?

It would appear our government truly believes its stars can shine only when the rest of us are enveloped in impenetrable darkness!

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