Let’s have more solutions and fewer genuflections in Budget debate
One of the best descriptions that I ever came across on the challenge of writing a column came from Pulitzer prize winning columnist Russell Baker of New York Times fame : it is like having to perform ballet in a telephone booth, he wrote.. The tendency of course is to simply increase the size of the phone booth – if the Editor permits.
Famed orator and politician Sir Winston Churchill made a not so dissimilar point when he offered advice on public speaking: the shortest speeches, he said, require the longest preparation.
Oddly enough, this brings me to our Minister of Finance Curtis Dickinson who is set to deliver the annual Budget. No one expects this traditional, pre-prepared speech to be short. Nor should it be. The member has a lot of ground to cover as he sets out how Government aims to turn around our economy and manage Government finances in the coming 2021-22 fiscal year.
There were clues in the Pre-Budget Report for those who were able to find the time to read it. The analysis presented was sound. It highlighted all the issues facing us; touched all the right bases; and, arguably, also hit all the right buttons.
The challenges ahead were also made clear.
Expectations are great. Hopes are high: for stability, growth and recovery; and diversification too, but without dislocation.
It is a tall order and there is no easy fix. Given the prevailing economic circumstances, and the need for solutions, immediate if possible, it might easily be said that the Minister of Finance finds himself in the unenviable position of having to fly, figuratively and literally, and with both hands tied behind his back; not to overlook the weight of debt holding him back and down.
Now he once had a plan – or so it seemed until Covid-19 struck.
But, as for plans, former heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson put it best in language that we can all understand: Sure, everyone has a plan,that is until they get punched in the mouth.
Covid-19 was no knockout punch – and credit here to the Government and how it has to date managed our way through this pandemic. But it was nonetheless an unexpected blow that set us back – and no need to recount here the ways in which it set us back. They are well known to all of us. It has touched us all in one way or another.
The economic impact was also detailed in that Pre-Budget Report – along with some frank admissions of where we are and where we need to be.
A couple of key takeaways here which should come as no surprise to anyone:
•Bermuda is having to face up to the effects an ageing population, declining workforce, underfunded public sector pension funds and escalating health care costs;
•“A large debt overhang” that is about to hit $3.35 billion if it has not already; and
•A forecast Budget deficit over $295 million for the current financial year, $270 million more than projected before COVID-19 struck.
The Minister quite rightly has described the latter as “unsustainable” and proposes plans to trim that deficit in the coming year by keeping a lid on capital spending and cutting back on current spending by up to $25 million. But with no new taxes, we are told, and only some increases in fees.
If he stays the course, the goal of growing and diversifying the economy is an imperative – which the Pre-Budget Report recognises, and, yes, that recognition includes immigration reform.
The road map of how this can be achieved should be the feature of the up-coming marathon Budget Debate, first from Government and then from the Opposition in Reply. A suggestion: it might be helpful if, for a change, the debate was a little less ‘argie, bargie’ and featured a greater focus on solutions.
People are over genuflections, they want steps.
Here’s another faint hope? Let’s actually get to work with that Public Accounts Committee (PAC) now that its members have been appointed and they have had one photo-op with a visiting Baroness. PAC has a very important and critical role to play at this time. It shouldn’t just be about following up on the Reports of the Auditor General – which is important, of course – but becoming far more current so that contracts and spending can be tracked contemporaneously. Steady, sure and constant oversight by the Legislature should be SOP – standard operating procedure.
This is the kind of bi-partisan support work that the Finance Minister, Government and Bermuda could usefully use.
One final thought about the Minister of Finance: he took stick in some quarters when he went to bat for Southampton P workers and advanced monies they were owed in redundancies. Concerns were raised as to the prospect of getting that $11 million back from Gencom. I wondered too, but held my pen. We were not all privy to the negotiations, the phone calls and the discussions that preceded the agreement. Give him credit. Those funds have since been paid back and we now know better the measure of the man in a tough post.