For some decades Jamaica has had a fiscal problem. The Government, in-spite of (or because of) it’s many forays to the IMF, simply can’t seem to get it’s house in order. Politicians in the past have refused to go after available tax dollars while spending money like it was going out of style, as such we find ourselves where we are today.
It is therefore good news that the current and previous administrations have actively sought to get the books in order (with the aid of the IMF) and even better news that we will be looking to remove ourselves from the relationship with the IMF while pledging to ensure that the books don’t get out of order.
That being said, lost in all of the feel good talk of fiscal independence and self-oversight is what the finance minister both called for and has said is being created, an Independent Fiscal Council. On the face of it this sounds like a brilliant idea, a true feather in the cap of the state if they can get it off. However we have been here before (ZOSO in theory makes sense but the planning was lacking and showed in its implementation) and I fear that instead of asking questions, the majority are either not listening or glibly accepting the Government line without a second thought.
There are quite a few questions that need to be asked about the make up of this board/council, many necessary questions need to be posed not in a spirit of poo-pooing the idea but in ensuring that the cuts are correct and affect no one group in a disproportionate or unfair way.
One such question that needs to be asked is who will this board be accountable to? This is no simple question as this factor will affect the populace directly in the long run in many ways. If it is independent along the lines of the judiciary (meaning they can’t be removed by government, only by retirement or breach of office) then the people automatically have lost a major right and may as well kiss the Ministry of Finance goodbye.
If it is independent along the lines of the judiciary then hypothetically if a government were elected on the promise of increased education funding and aimed to follow through on that promise, the hypothetical budget could be scrapped by this board as it may run counter to their mandate. That is not true fiscal independence; politicians held accountable but the purse holders are not? That is simply the IMF localized, something I am sure the average citizen is now in favour of.
Who makes up the board is also a question which is glaring in its absence. So far the only thing that we know (and it is not much) is that its members will be Jamaicans, will have experience in this field and will be technocrats. On the face of it these vague factoids don’t seem alarming, they actually look quite good, but the opaqueness of these factoids raises many questions at a second glance.
Will these persons be residing in Jamaica or do they currently reside here? If they don’t do they have strong ties to the land e.g plans on retirement? Will the technocrats be drawn from local unions and civic groups? If not, will they have some input in who sits on this board? Will these experts be solely drawn from the IMF and World Bank with their track records of failed policies and refusal to think outside of the box or will the net be widened?
All of the above questions have yet to be asked in any meaningful way to this Government or the relevant minister, and that is a massive disservice on the part of the media, civil groups and unions towards the Jamaican citizens, who will pay dearly for any failure.
If, for example, this independent body wields the axe along the lines of the UK, what is to stop the then opposition from demonizing the body and wining on the promise of doing away with it and loosening the purse strings? All of the progress we have made on the fiscal front would be lost just like that, and our political system is made for that type of scenario as history, both distant and recent, has shown us.
Cuts need to be maintained and made in some areas until revenues pick up. That, I am sure, everyone can agree on. However, if we implement a board which follows the same dictate and okays the same things going on now — millions in trips, phone bills and cars — while cutting key services (who can forget the used car deal that has now gone to tribunal) we have not gained and our politicians have built in excuses for not doing squat, that is not independence either.
These cuts need to be done with the input and agreement of all stakeholders and it is therefore of the utmost importance that they speak up now while it is still in the crafting rather than cry when the next wage negotiation entails more wage cuts.
Will we have a board that is accountable to the people, a board that represents the people and a board that can, at the very least, call upon unions and other groups for advice/membership? These questions have yet to be answered, but they also have not been posed to the Government at all.
This fiscal board is big, as big a deal as when the PNP tried to take the nation along the democratic-socialist path, and will leave a lasting impact on the country in many ways (funding for education, health, etc). The powers that be must answer questions and the relevant representative groups need to ask the right questions and demand a say in how it is formulated, its mandate and its members. To do otherwise would be dooming the country to the machinations of persons who time has shown have no interest in the everyday citizen and will indeed go out of their way to shaft us.