Wednesday’s consultation exercise on our current circumstances in relation to the economy was commendable to the extent that it gave citizens a chance to contribute to the 2018 Budget exercise.
However, the overview of the economy by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley lacked concrete details. Those, perhaps, are matters which Finance Minister Colm Imbert will address come Monday.
For now, Rowley’s summary of a dramatic drop in energy revenue — the main revenue source between 2014 and 2017 — and his warning of the need for changes in habits in relation to the consumption of foreign exchange continue a message which is by now well established by the present administration.
Yet again, we heard of the urgent need for diversification. It is some comfort that Rowley set out outlines that involve three-year growth strategies in various fields. The Prime Minister envisions growth as a key contributor to transformation of the foreign exchange landscape.
But it is not apparent whether a profound enough change can be achieved in the export manufacturing, tourism, housing, maritime services, agriculture, financial services and creative industry sectors. These are complex fields. For us to be convinced of this we need to see the plan of action in more concrete terms to get an idea of the scale of what is envisioned.
Though it was a welcomed dialogue, it is unfortunate Wednesday’s event happened so close to the actual Budget presentation. The tight timeline gives the impression of a last-minute incorporation of recommendations. Such last-minuteness is the opposite of what the Government must be seen to be doing now. To inspire confidence, it must demonstrate steady, long-term planning.
The State only stands to gain from a larger consultation window if the objective is to listen to the population. Perhaps the mechanism adopted could be replicated ahead of any planned mid-year review next year.
Once more the issue of gender-based budgeting emerged. In a question-and-answer segment it was suggested that aspect of our fiscal planning is a specialist matter for the Ministry of Planning. However, the countervailing view that gender sensitivity is a matter for the national agenda, and therefore the Ministry of Finance, was also propounded. Indeed, the Ministry of Finance is already called upon to have a careful eye on social conditions, even as it deals in cold facts and numbers.
The question of the participation of the labour movement in the Budget process is also still pertinent. However, now that trade unions have returned to the tripartite round table it is hoped labour will be able to have a voice on policy measures. The success of this depends on if stakeholders are given a meaningful opportunity to contribute.
We regard the Prime Minister’s speech as akin to the section of the Budget that deals with a review of the economy. It is important to look back, yes, to understand why we have come to where we have come. But in the process we must look much further than the previous administration, especially when dealing with deep structural problems within the economy; problems that have persisted for decades.
And certainly it is time to look forward. In fact, one effect of Wednesday’s preview was to heighten the sense of expectation.
Come Monday, citizens are going to look to the Government to set the tone and to get into the heart of its agenda. Perhaps we are in store for a crisp, sharp and focused Budget. Such a document is needed.
The State has been saying we are in for turbulence for a long time. Now is the time, however, to connect policies in a meaningful way with intended outcomes. Tell us the plan now.