2016 Throne Speech: A Commentary

William Josephby William Joseph

A standard feature of the British parliamentary system (Westminster) is the annual Speech where Her Majesty’s Government discloses its legislative agenda for the ensuing term. In Grenada, the Speech tends to be more about general policies and updates than legislation.

The 2016 Speech does not contain a legislative agenda, as such.

Interestingly, the Throne Speech is not a particularly popular political product among citizens; but investors, businesses and Trade Unions tend to pay it some attention. While promises excite ordinary voters, policies cause others to think! Thinking (reading, listening and reflecting/assessing) is not a widespread aspect of our voting culture!

Policy is a statement of proposed or intended commitment of resources and courses of action, legislative and administrative, aimed at addressing important problems, trends, issues and opportunities in the economy and society. Policy may also be driven by political ideology and personal ambition! Therefore it may not always speak about the public interest.

So that public policy involves the administration showing that it has some level of understanding of the issues of the day and demonstrates Government’s leadership role in response to them.

There is usually a relationship between the budget and the Throne Speech, at the level of implementation. However, whereas the budget calls for accountability, the Throne Speech does not. For those who stir themselves to be interested in this aspect of government and governance, they might well begin by appreciating the character of a Throne Speech, its purposes and expectations, and be prepared to sift substance from chaff. This implies that the Speech tends to be crafted with particular consumers in mind, on an issue- by- issue basis.

Having provided a starting point and context, we can now look at specific aspects of the Speech. The prospects of Pension reform and Health Insurance, though unconvincing, are worthwhile and positive directions for the people. Transactions pertaining to reform of the energy sector are important, so too is the management of the necessary change process.

Generally, the identification of top priorities for national development is a good first step. However, policy should focus both on shaping the future as well as avoiding mistakes of the past.

Credibility will be enhanced if Government were to commit to not repeating conduct that led to a second Structural Adjustment Program in twenty years.

One of the dominant features of the Speech is the extent to which it makes declarations without supporting facts.

Consider these:

i.      “Our economy is in a much stronger position than it was four years ago”. How is that determined? Is there evidence that poverty has declined significantly, or local and foreign investment has improved, or that Grenada is producing more, or that growth is reflected in enhanced revenue collection and higher levels of employment?

ii.     “Economic growth has rebounded since 2014”. What is the evidence of such growth at the level of households, or is it merely a statistical concept; a formula that gives comfort to hard-pressed politicians?

iii.    “Unemployment has fallen”. Is that true? What is the current level? Who measured it and when?
Secondly, one of the priorities set in the Speech is strengthening national unity. Well, well! Hardly a week ago, the best opportunity to do that through the Referendum process, was blindly ignored! If we can’t unite the Nation over Constitution Reform what chance do we have of doing so through meetings of the Social Partners?

Is the emphasis on uniting institutions as distinct from the people?

So there is a need for consensus on what constitutes national unity.

Before the Social Partners it was reconciliation with the remnants of the RMC! Remember?

Next, there is a strange and cumbersome set of words as follows:

“Youth unemployment…must receive focused attention in this new Session of Parliament”. First off, apart from its vagueness, the statement suggests that youth unemployment has not been the subject of focused attention (or only of inadequate/limited focus) in the past.

If so, then the regime is indicting itself for failing to properly focus on this burning national issue during previous Sessions of Parliament. Secondly, it suggests that Parliament is readying itself to focus on the problem through the 2017 budget, presumably by way of a very large and unaffordable allocation of public funds for ‘optical’ employment in the IMANI Program. To this extent, the structural issues causing the problem are not being addressed at all!

Fourthly, the emphasis on “competitiveness of the economy” suggests that the economy is otherwise, though inefficiently, producing goods and services so that productivity improvements, quality enhancements, ease of doing business and cost efficiencies are all that’s needed to reap more benefits from the existing levels of production. But Grenada has a massive production problem, full stop! What are the innovative production enhancement measures and initiatives?

Then there was the usual menu of education, health, ICT, agriculture and so on. No new ground is being contemplated and the rehash is in full play. Fair enough as there must be some degree of continuity between one Speech and another. Fiscal policy got its space, but there was no indication of direction especially with respect to taxation on incomes and businesses, even though in a matter of days (budget) there will be pronouncements on the very issue. The omission is really a matter of political judgment.

Two aspects of the reference to tourism are laughable, really! Anyone who advised that Grenada could boost arrivals and earnings from intra-regional tourism at this time might have already skipped town, though deserving of deportation! The Trinidad economy is in deep trouble, where will regional tourists come from? Secondly, the commercialisation of attractions as a policy goal is over fifteen years old! Is the regime serious on this matter?

Generally, the Throne Speech contained a mixed bag of subdued optimism and continuing misalignment. Correcting the fiscal algebra through the Structural Adjustment Program is one thing; achieving solid economic growth is different. Yet the achievements under the SAP, such as they are, ought to be recognised. However, much remains at risk in the event of an elections cycle in 2017.

Opportunities have been given, but curses (unemployment, poverty, high taxes and debts) have persisted! Real solutions are needed, but that will not happen with the political contest for Office where promises energise false hopes and policies paint fake pictures of the future. In both cases, the politician is not accountable!

(William Joseph is a former Permanent Secretary in the Grenada Public Service)

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