THE first round of the 2017/18 Saint Lucia Budget Debate brought into sharp focus the different approaches of the island’s two major parties – UWP and SLP — to the business of government: UWP feels government should be run like a business, SLP insists government is not a business.
Governance ought to be the common denominator in both cases, as it is how a nation is governed that will determine if the government of the day is good at governance — the business of management and administration of government business.
Prime Minister Allen Chastanet wants to one day see Saint Lucia’s government run by a CEO and every ministry a branch with its own Vice-President. But Opposition Leader Philip J. Pierre sees the business of government as involving the Executive, Parliament and Judiciary working together, under present constitutional arrangements.
Chastanet is not alone in wanting to run government like a company. President Donald Trump says he wants to run the US Government “like a great American company”. He has thus anointed and appointed himself the first Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of USA Inc.
His aim is to deliver his campaign promises “ahead of schedule and under-budget”. And like with his own ‘Great American Family Business’, the supreme magnate atop the Trump Empire is putting family members in charge.
At the end of March, the White House unveiled an Office for Innovation to ensure America’s 2.5 million government employees manage state affairs like a business – and the President appointed Jared Kushner, his most trusted son-in-law, to get the job done.
Kushner’s wife, Ivanka — Trump’s eldest daughter — who already has her own West Wing office for ‘advocacy work’, also joined her husband’s Innovation Office to offer ‘free advice’ on issues such as ‘workforce development’.
Thing is, though, never mind who’s in charge of what, no matter what their respective economic theories, each government leader and every ruling party everywhere faces the same challenges at every budget: how best to balance the figures to ensure income and expenditure can pay government’s bills and still leave enough to take care of and serve the people’s needs.
Every government at budget time has to decide what programmes it will keep and cut, what social programmes it will continue or scrap.
Trump is bent on getting rid of the Affordable Care Act (that his people still describe as ‘ObamaCare’), easing taxes on the rich, closing America’s gates to refugees fleeing to the ‘Land of Opportunity’, punishing ‘Sanctuary Cities’ that refuse to turn their backs on undocumented immigrants, keeping ‘Muslims’ out, building ‘that great wall’, cutting social programmes, increasing the military budget — and ‘Making America Great Again’.
Chastanet has so far chosen to revise the Citizenship by Investment Programme (CIP), keep the Value Added Tax (VAT), scrap the National Initiative to Create Employment (NICE), cut the Saint Lucia National Trust’s annual subvention, create a new Tourism Authority and bank heavily on the success of a single major foreign investment project to repaint the entire national economic landscape.
The Saint Lucia Opposition, on the other hand, insists the route so far outlined by the Prime Minister will only result in the country having to seek refuge from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Both sides agree things are bad, but not why. Their prescriptions for change, therefore, differ. But while the UWP and SLP differ on the business of government, the first round of the 2017/2018 Saint Lucia budget discussion last week was more about the politics (than the business) of government.
Public responses to the MPs’ contributions have so far been more critical than endorsing, more citizens calling for MPs to do and say more than just propose and oppose.
More electors are also finding it politically incorrect for MPs to spend quality budget time rehashing what they did in their constituencies during the previous year. (Someone suggested this could be the business of the last sitting of Parliament every year.)
The interconnections between budgets also again came to light with Chastanet’s admission that his government inherited an improved fiscal performance. But here again, like in the USA where a government shutdown at budget time is always a roll of the dice between the two parties, Saint Lucia’s two major parties can hardly be expected to agree on fiscal prescriptions.
The US and Saint Lucia governments both feel the best way to help the poor is by helping the rich — to enhance the rates of return for investors so they will be better able to expand and employ more poor people.
The Saint Lucia opposition sees it another way: No matter what government does to help the private sector, it must first take care of the most poor, needy and vulnerable and ensure adequate funding for social services to generally improve people’s all-round conditions at home and in their communities.
The two Saint Lucian parties have also historically had different outlooks on the business of government.
Essentially, both support the prevailing capitalist-oriented approach to the economics and financing of government, where everything else is measured by GDP; and while one is prone to always add social programmes as essential budget ingredients, the other is more prone to apply the make-the-rich-richer ‘trickle down’ approach of the Keynesian model.
Budgeting continues to be treated like some sort of mystery business, but it can sometimes be easily explained. I got a WhatsApp message recently with an interesting explanation of budgeting — by a UK MP in the European Union (EU) Parliament.
Born just after World War II, the MEP said, he had saved enough money by working hard and honestly to bequeath some wealth to his family after he passes on. He never spends more than he earns — and never borrows more than he can pay back.
Bewildered that politicians and people today never seem to understand why countries earn heavy debts, he offered that the real reason is “because politicians always spend more money than they can possibly raise in taxation, most of which they actually waste.”
“Then”, he continued, “when the country runs out of money through their own doings, the politicians and their central banks use a machine to print money — a criminal offence that you and I will go to jail for, but which they keep doing all the time…”
He said debts strangle nations that eventually become broke because of their own “ridiculous, ineffective and failed politicians”.
The British MEP, therefore, considered it “highly immoral” for taxpayers in any country “to pick up the tab for failed politicians and failed banks…”
His final appeal: “They are defaulted, they are broke, (so) for God’s sake, let’s all of us admit it!”
Fact is, though: Even after admitting the government has defaulted, taxpayers everywhere still foot the bill, one way or another, paying their tax dues while losing the other costs of paying back the nation’s debt.
Worse: Much of the Caribbean is still at a stage where less of those who vote fully understand the maze of figures and statistics, phrases and abbreviations used by the MPs.
Besides: Most media coverage of the budget is more in the realm of reporting (who said what) and insufficient by way of analysis, interpretation and explanation of the relevant issues in ways and means, with words and pictures that the average Peter Paul and Mary Joseph will follow and understand.
Clearly, no government has yet been successfully run like a business with the emphasis only on profit as the bottom-line. Indeed, Good Governance many times involves making choices and taking profit-shrinking actions that the average company shareholder with eyes on the bottom-line will not approve.
Neither President Trump, nor Jared Kushner, will be able to get the millions of American public servants and extended employees around the world to switch in four years from their established state bureaucratic ways to ‘bottom-line’ private sector administration.
Likewise, just as elected Caribbean MPs in Cabinet refuse to yield to Permanent Secretaries — who are the real CEOs of ministries — it will be just as hard to get regional public servants to switch their minds and actions to their pay being determined according to productivity and profitability of government business.
All this isn’t to say that one day another Adam Smith won’t come up with a blueprint and template for ‘How to run a Government like a Business’. That’s still considered far away – and if it ever happens, it will be Business Unusual.
But until then, no matter how it’s looked at or what changes are made to formats, when it comes to the business of annual budget presentations in Parliament across the Caribbean region — it’s nothing but Business as Usual!