OK, Ms. Cox, but what will this independence exercise really cost
Mid Ocean News (25 Feb. 2005)
UBP MP John Barritt's 'View From the Hill'
FORGET what’s in a name, Mr. Editor, instead: What’s in a word? Not much really, but when combined with other, presumably, carefully chosen words, they do tend to point the reader in a certain direction – and usually for a reason. Such was the case last Friday in the House on the Hill when the Finance Minister Paula Cox presented the Government Budget for the coming fiscal year 2005-2006.
The “Country’s National Budget” was how the Minister described it right from the opening paragraph of her statement, and several times thereafter. National? I had not heard that term used before; indeed I scrambled to take a quick peek back through last year’s, the first by Ms. Cox, and, nope, just as I thought, it was then described as it always has been, the Annual Government Budget.
So what gives?
Or more importantly what’s changed since the last one?
I expect that for you, Mr Editor, I do not need to paint a picture. Or as one of my colleagues loves to put it, you don’t need to be Ray Charles to read between the lines on this one. The Man in charge of The Woman in charge of our Finances wants us all to be thinking independence. (Independence, Renee, not independently.)
So the term National Budget makes for a nice segue – what a wonderful word, Mr. Editor - into talk of independence. Lo and behold, there we were not long into the Budget Statement and there were a couple of paragraphs on – yes, you guessed it – independence.
“The people of every country have an inherent and inalienable right to articulate a view of self-determination and act upon that view”, declared the Finance Minister, not ten minutes into her speech, a speech that would take well over an hour, close to 90 minutes in fact, one of the longest in recent memory. We were told that Government has re-engaged the people in “a dialogue” about self-determination for Bermuda, and that there is: -
* Nothing sinister about the dialogue;
* No hidden agenda;
* Nothing to fear; and that
* There will be no rush to judgement.
“At the end of the process”, declared Ms. Cox, reading from her prepared written statement, “the Bermudian people will articulate a view on self-determination and act upon it. That is their inherent and inalienable right”.
The opening was obvious. Too obvious for those who are prepared to articulate a view and act on it. “How, then?”, asked Opposition Leader Dr. Grant Gibbons out loud, from across the floor. “Are you or are you not going to give the people the right to have a say by referendum?”.
An answer to that question wasn’t in the script. The Finance Minister continued on. Instead, reading from her prepared remarks, Ms. Cox told us that the people of Bermuda are going to be given the facts and the costs of going independent, presumably by the Big BIC, which was never actually mentioned by name.
Just how much will that exercise cost?
Well, said Ms Cox: “Government has made provision in the 2005/06 National Budget for fact-finding and providing answers to all the questions that reasonable people might have about self-determination for Bermuda and for Bermudians”.
Exactly how much then? I mean that seems like a reasonable question any reasonable person might have. Sadly, the Finance Minister chose not to share that figure with us in her statement and, according to a report in The Royal Gazette the next day, she declined to give that figure when asked at her subsequent press conference. You will also be hard pressed to find that sum identified anywhere in the Estimates.
So much then, Mr Editor, for providing answers to reasonable questions from reasonable people.
No hidden agenda.
Nothing to fear.
Excuse me but am I being rushed to judgement?
Hear no… See no … Speak no ….
TALKING of leaving things out, there were a couple of others too, which, as far as the PLP Government is concerned, are better left unsaid. Three prime examples if I may: -
The Berkeley project … and the escalating costs, and the overruns, and the arbitration, and the delay, hardly rated a mention. It was touched upon but ever so briefly as one of a number of major projects “underway”. (Please, Mr. Editor, won’t someone in that PLP Government tell us what they mean by “underway”: How long is underway to be underway?) Even more noticeable is the way in which the PLP are now trying to distance themselves from their own work. The word “Berkeley” or the words “Berkeley Institute” in association with the new senior secondary school have been dropped, completely. “The Second Senior School” is the term the Finance Minister employed. Shame and embarrassment, I suspect.
The Bermuda Housing Corporation: The planned activities of the BHC, the Finance Minister told us, have only had a minimal impact on the $62 million budget of the Works Ministry. That sounds like good news in view of what happened in the past. But that’s not quite how the Minister meant it. BHC is going to be seeking required financing in local capital markets for housing initiatives. How is this possible? You ask a reasonable question. “Corporate governance and transparency has been significantly improved at the Bermuda Housing Corporation”, explained Ms. Cox in her Budget Statement. Really? Why is it then that the Minister responsible has yet to make public – as required by law - the Annual Reports for the Corporation for the years 2002, 2003 and 2004? They have, Mr. Editor, been a very long time coming …and I draw attention to this without getting into the delay which surrounded disclosure of the Auditor General’s Special Report which has still be aired and debated in the House of Assembly.
Jobs: The Minister gave us only the good news here. Overall employment is expected to have increased by 1.5 percent in 2004 following a flat performance in 2003. “The overall number of jobs in the economy”, she said in her Statement, “was provisionally placed at 38,259 in 2004, reflecting a net addition of 573 jobs across the entire economy”. Sounds good. Looks good too. Until you dig down and take a look at the facts and figures reported on by the Finance Ministry in their 2004 Economic Review – which the Minister tabled with her Budget. The Review tells the real story: since 1998 jobs held by Bermudians have gone from 28,717 to 27,345 in 2004, a decline of 1372 jobs over six years. Jobs held by non-Bermudians? They have climbed to a high of 8,980 in 2004 from 7,480 in 1999 or an increase of 1500 jobs. The statistics speak for themselves. This is the New Bermuda, Mr. Editor, in which Bermudians are now struggling to survive.
Wait for it
AS for jobs, all criticism aside Mr. Editor, you have to give the Minister her due. There were no new taxes to complain about. Land taxes held despite the recent, upward revision in ARVs (maybe next time). Payroll taxes were eased for the little guys. Farmers finally get a customs duty break they’ve been after for some time. Pensioners are promised a 3.5 per cent increase as of August 1 but, as we also heard, the increase may still fall behind the rate of inflation which may run to 4 percent this year. The increase will also cost us a 4.5% increase in our social insurance contributions.
Meanwhile, a proud PLP Minister for Finance was at pains to highlight the PLP’s track record (to date) on debt. Better than the UBP, Ms Cox crowed: this before Dr. Gibbons gets to reply this week.
But then why plan to borrow $85-million more?
You have to also wonder at what’s coming too, when Government proposes to increase the proposed statutory debt limit from $250-million to $375-million?
It sounds to me, Mr Editor, like there is something just around the corner. I guess reasonable people with reasonable questions looking for reasonable answers will just have to wait.
Flights of fancy
SPEAKING of what’s ahead Mr. Editor, the wordsmiths responsible for the Budget Statement seemed at several points to have, shall we say, soared on flights of oratorical fancy .( Translation: They got carried away.)
Like, for example, this declaration: “We are living in an exciting time – there is so much to do, so many bridges to cross and there is a bold new world that hovers just on the edge of the horizon”. Bermuda is what then? Another World but not the other World out there hovering on the horizon?
Or what about this: “ … Our people will move in unison to the drumbeats and rhythms of our cultural heritage as we celebrate 500 years of Bermuda’s advances in this Quincentennial year. Such is the essence of the ‘Social Agenda’!” Now that, Mr. Editor, sounds like a Social Agenda …and in competition with a re-vamped tourism strategy which was described as one of “bold steps and pulsating moves”. A kind of new Tourism Slide as in Electric? Get down, Dr. James Brown.
Or this: “We intend to be an entrepreneurial government – one that constantly chafes at the bit and searches for more efficient and effective ways of managing”. Chafes?! As in “make hot or sore by rubbing” or “become annoyed”? That’s a bit of a slip, I think, but perhaps accurate.
And finally this gem at the conclusion: “This means that every one of us must be involved as we build our nation: A Bermuda for Everyone … Everyone for Bermuda”.
Mind you, the Minister told us earlier in her statement that this will be the theme for the Quincentennial celebrations which Government is planning this year to mark the 500th Anniversary of the discovery of Bermuda, but to some of my colleagues it sounded like an election theme in the making.
So much then, Mr. Editor, for Juan Bermuda!