And onwards we go

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley. PHOTO BY JEFF MAYERS -
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley. PHOTO BY JEFF MAYERS -

Trust in God, but tie your camel first. I have always found that Egyptian adage, probably of Sufi origin, quite wise advice to follow and I have let it guide me as much as that other Sufi warning about not falling asleep in life’s waiting room while mistakenly thinking you are alive. Together, they absolutely make the point that we must take calculated risks and then act without fear.

We have entered a new year of this decade, which started so inauspiciously, with a lot to sort out. It feels as unpredictable as 2000 did but without the optimism that the start of a new millennium brings, the only one many of us would have experienced.

However, there is room for feeling optimistic, and I do not mean complacent. Complacency, probably, is not what our PM was advocating when he said we should not run down our country, but he should be careful to always appear realistic about the size of the challenge we face and also about our apparent shortage of tools for fixing it. In that regard, his elegant Christmas message was only partly on point.

He is right that too much doomsday rhetoric is unhealthy, not least because it can become self-fulfilling, yet we do have rather a lot on our plate that definitely requires some calculated risk-taking, and we don’t see much evidence that we have the bit between our teeth.

My wish for the government in this New Year is that it can fashion and articulate a coherent and convincing policy on the way forward. Simply expressed goals, such as "we’ll reform the public service by a particular date, modernise the agricultural sector, including phased steps, by 202?, direct investment into the knowledge economy of $tbc by 202?," will exploit the unmasking of the fault lines in our society and educational system to thoroughly reshape how and where children learn. These are not easily achieved goals, but it sets the course and are encouraging.

It warmed my heart to read an extended interview with Dr Rowley in this paper in December in which he extolled the virtues of and his love for reading. We know those to be true: after all, he has published his autobiography, a welcome and comparatively rare event among our prime ministers and senior leaders, and appeared on the writers’ stage at TT’s annual literary festival, the NGC Bocas Lit Fest.

The question I pose, therefore, is why does that conviction not translate into policy? Can our dear PM not instruct his Minister of Finance to remove the full VAT that he placed on books? The 12.5 per cent tax is levied only on non-textbooks and therefore yields comparatively low income for the Treasury, yet it pushes up the price of adult and children’s books of fiction and nonfiction inordinately for the reader. once the huge freight and handling charges and the random other and inexplicable additional Customs and Excise charges are taken into account. The effect is to make it difficult for the average person to purchase books, which our prime minister advocates.

My guess is that the Finance Ministry regards all books that you do not have to beat at school as a luxury, so it falls to our PM to educate those who work for him. He should note too that nowhere else in Caricom does VAT on books exist.

My second guess is that the finance ministry looks at printed matter and sees that the so-called publishing sector is lucrative and has not been careful to analyse it. If it did, it would find that it is the educational publishing sector which qualifies as lucrative and also monopolistic.

Small booksellers, at the very end of the value chain, who try to ensure the availability of Caribbean non-schoolbooks as essential reading matter, are the VAT collectors who cannot earn a decent wage from selling needlessly expensive titles. Even uncorrected review copies of works of fiction, which have no retail value and arrive unsolicited from international publishers for ordering and promotional purposes, can attract charges higher than the final commercial copies cost once on bookshop shelves. My NGO recently paid $126 to TTPost for a package containing an unrequisitioned, clearly marked “not for sale” book.

What is the point of Customs opening every single package if it cannot discern the proper value of the contents? It is a simple but real example of existing contradictions and frustrations of the NGO sector which is trying to promote literacy and literature.

We know that the most effective management style is to pick the best people and then let them get on with the task, having set the agenda. Maybe the PM is leading his team with clear imperatives, but a mismatch still exists between what he believes and what his government delivers, at least in this one area, although it may be replicated elsewhere.

Let’s hope the various strands are brought together this year for the benefit of the general public.


"And onwards we go"

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