The striking similarities between the political campaigns conducted by the St. Lucia Labour Party (SLP) and its Jamaican counterpart, the People’s National Party (PNP) did not escape my well trained observant sensibilities. The SLP ran a text book election campaign of hope, hype and promises of “Better Days are Coming!” As if borrowing from the same playbook, the PNP echoed: ‘If Yu Want Nice Times to Come Again!’ The success at the polls of both political parties confirm what political pundits believe is the core of any good election campaign. It must be grounded and rooted in exciting people about the prospect of a better future. “Faith,” the scriptures wrote many moons ago, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” So, St. Lucians, like Jamaicans went to the polls accepting the promises of “jobs, jobs, jobs” and “nice times are coming again!”
Interestingly, both parties were giving those glorified expectations to its vulnerable people who were desperate like drowning men hanging on to any straw of hope for better times. Meanwhile, the world was in the midst of a global meltdown, the worst since the Great Depression of the 60’s. The United States, one of the world’s richest countries, was struggling desperately to find innovative and imaginative ways to keep its economy from a complete collapse. As economists debated the merit of stimulus verses debt reduction and massive spending cuts, St. Lucian and Jamaican politicians were blasting away nightly about the prospect of greater and better times that were lurking if their respective political parties were reelected. It was a very optimistic approach at political campaigning during one of the darkest periods in recent economic times. “Don’t trust your fears,” the politicians seem to have been pushing, “come with us to a place called hope!” It was a hope based on the theorizing notion that better days are always ahead regardless of the startling financial realities of a world in crisis.
Mere months later, both political parties are now facing the harsh realities of governing their respective countries in an unstable and uncertain economic environment. Admittedly there are green shoots of economic growth in the United States, one of the capitalist countries on which the region is most dependent, but with such anemic growth, not even the United States government is comfortable with where things stand. Meanwhile, all eyes are gazing at Europe, and in particular Greece, where an economic mishap can deliver a devastating blow to the world economy. Those pending cold winds of economic misfortune for small dependent Caribbean countries can cause an intensely painful economic flu that could send us into the intensive care unit.
Faced with this perplexing and troubling world scenario, the St. Lucia and Jamaica governments have had to deliver their fiscal budgets. A far cry from the glorious, hopeful and optimistic projections of the campaigns, the budgets presented constituted a telling departure. A coming to terms with the reality that the world is round after all and not flat. Both budgets include a litany of taxes and as Bob Marley rightly proclaimed: “De poor man ah feel it!” In its manifesto the St. Lucia Labour Party had indicated its intention to introduce the Value Added Tax system (VAT) if reelected, but it was not an issue that was front and center during the election campaign. It lay there surreptitiously like an al-Quaida terrorist sleeper cell. The facts are that in opposition, Dr. Kenny Anthony had pounced on VAT as a “very oppressive” measure. It has become an acceptable norm for politicians to say one thing on the opposition benches and do a completely different thing once in political office. Now the VAT bomb has exploded.
Of course, blame these dramatic about faces on changing fortunes based on ‘newly acquired facts that were not at their disposal’ when they made their irresponsible and sometimes calculatedly misguided pronouncement from the opposition perch. Seriously? Must we really accept as gospel that Prime Minister Kenny Anthony and Lady Portia Simpson were not aware of the terrible economic situation facing the world while in opposition? If they did not know, shouldn’t that be viewed as a dereliction of duty to the people they were busy asking to trust them again? Come on, let us get real! It’s an appalling disregard for the collective intelligence of a people.
In Jamaica, Prime Minister Portia Simpson’s government has imposed massive taxes on the people that include 25 percent on text books and wide ranging taxes on food and other items. In an article entitled: ‘Taxing Literacy and Poor People’s Food,’ columnist Mark Wignall expressed some satisfaction that Finance Minister Peter Phillips’ tax package did not include a sexual indulgence and enjoyment tax. Whatever happened to the recently promised ‘nice time again,’ he wondered.
Those who wear tinted party glasses will find fitting excuses for supposed people’s parties in Jamaica and St. Lucia governments to impose such harsh and punishing tax regimes on people who can least afford it. In the case of St. Lucia, certain items will be zero rated, but there is no escaping the fact that VAT will be a serious burden on all the people. Political parties who claim to represent poor people have an obligation to ensure that the imposition of taxes do not place the vulnerable at a greater disadvantage. There must be some safety nets and programs in place to mitigate the pain and to demonstrate the compassion and care of a people oriented government. Welfare is not a curse word when it is intended to cushion economic blows to those who are in need and desperately want a helping hand from a trusted government that it voted for. ‘En Rouge’ should not just be slogan, but a rallying cry for people’s participation in the processes of governance.
A people’s party must level with the people at all times. It should not offer pie in the sky promises and turn around and offer pain in the pocket. People’s parties are not about political expediency and political power at all cost. They must first count the cost. They must provide people with reasonable expectations, not dreams of better days, then turn around and deliver tax regimes that are in compliance with the dictates of financial institutions that couldn’t care less if those people have bread to eat. There are financial intuitions that are forcing regional countries into punitive monetary systems that they would never recommend for their countries of origin. The International Monetary Fund is one such institution. But when we fail to prepare our people to build, invent and create and instead depend on a shaky and uncertain tourism market to deliver us into a heavenly bliss of green bucks, then we are beholden to those who compel and command our fiscal policies.
Unless we learn the valuable lesson of controlling the means of production, a very communistic thing to say, we are doomed to be always at the altar of the mighty dollar. The trickle-down- theory of economic entanglement delivered a modern day recession and economic crisis that is still very present. So, ‘Better Days and Nice Time Again’ is catchy, exciting and hyped but is not an economic policy which will deliver sustainable economic development. We need to put our people to work by providing an education system that can reprogram our people to produce and invent and to come up with the next big thing in the world. Yes, we must get our seabed out of Grynbery’s litigious and sticky hands so that we can truly explore to see if there are any hidden treasures. We must redouble our efforts to make the land feed us to cut down dramatically on our import bills for which we must borrow to repay. Then there must be a massive education and literacy program to get those ignoramus views off the air waves and replace them with sensible dialogue and meaningful debates.
Finally, this is a small country and our problems are mainly created by our smallness of thought and our mental conditioning. And, if I should turn to Marley again: “None but ourselves can free our minds.” Maybe, what we truly need is not political parties but an association of ideas in a people’s assembly: men and women who cannot be bought or sold on the altar of partisanship, consumerism and religion. So, as it is in St. Lucia , so too is Jamaica. What telling similarities!
Unless we learn the valuable lesson of controlling the means of production, a very communistic thing to say, we are doomed to be always at the altar of the mighty dollar. The trickle-down- theory of economic entanglement delivered a modern day recession and economic crisis that is still very present. So, ‘Better Days and Nice Time Again’ is catchy, exciting and hyped but is not an economic policy which will deliver sustainable economic development.