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Oh Budget, boy

By Terry Joseph
September 30, 2005

In a time when oral tradition prevailed, distractions being far fewer than occasioned by the digital age, it was necessary to accord equal scrutiny to body language and spoken word if a friend said: "Oh shirt, boy!"

Given the fleeting existence of a properly executed "couillon-mouth," there was no guarantee you were looking in his direction at the precise time and therefore could not conclude hastily on the sincerity of the comment. But when "town" say, "Oh Budget, boy," Prime Minister Patrick Manning can take that to the Treasury.

I'm not sure Plato's Apology, in which Socrates sought to defend himself against the Thirty Tyrants at Athens, lasted as long as Mr Manning's budget speech but, as he trotted out a $34 billion package, it became clear the Prime Minister had apparently sought out, embraced and then pampered every interest, assuaging frequently expressed anxiety over Government's inability to implement trickle-down economics.

The three-hour soliloquy, delivered in measured tone, read like an exotic recipe for manna, with ample desserts on the side; all smilingly served to masses hungry for relief. Headlines like "Addressing basic needs", "Sharing the oil wealth", "Big tax cuts", "More oil and gas $$", "Free tertiary education", "Family medicine programme coming", "PM delivers juicy budget" and similar sounds of praise littered yesterday's newspapers.

In addition, there were plums aplenty for those interested in less complex stuff, like the start of construction next March of a National Carnival Centre at the Queen's Park Savannah, upgrading of the national steelband, immediate removal of value added tax (VAT) on certain educational tools, billion-dollar plans for improving water supply and distribution, many millions for road repair, affordable housing for low-income earners, treatment of HIV/Aids, more money for sport, and agri-business development.

And even after having presented an unassailable list of promises and deliberately reiterating plans for rural areas at every opportunity, as if to rub in willingness to help residents of Opposition-held constituencies regardless of political allegiance, Mr Manning still found time to announce details of the tariff reductions on pigtail, milk, rice and the number one concern among bachelors and buljol lovers at large, saltfish-where import arrangements for such commodities are not in conflict with agreements with other Caricom countries.

He could just as well have been a classic calypsonian going after the national title, catering to a social swath stretching from fiscal expert to fishmonger, saying in essence:,"I in town too long" to not know how to please an audience, maintaining the art's tradition by throwing in some picong too, singing the praises of Almighty God and his Government's management of the energy products windfall, adding at the end of the stanza, "And we ain't tief none", staring fixedly at the Opposition benches.

Of course, in the interest of mandatory Parliamentary debate, there will be the litany of Opposition complaints about the impossibility of implementing the huge bag of promises made by Mr Manning, but precisely who, among the little people, is going to be worried about that is not yet clear, since our experience with both sides of the political divide suggests that governments historically fall short in that regard.

Already, UNC political leader-in-waiting Winston Dookeran has described Mr Manning's fiscal plan as "an economic bubble which will evaporate (sic)", perhaps like the tenure of his colleague Kamla Persad-Bissessar as Attorney General, she not missing the opportunity to describe the budget as "delusional", scoffing at the idea of elevated rail transport from Diego Martin to Arima and likening the Prime Minister's measures to "a pelau in which you pull pieces from all over and just throw it in", as though that is how Trinidadians actually prepare that favourite dish.

The Trinidad and Tobago Manufacturers Association (TTMA) and other business community groupings who, historically, never really applaud any government's budget, find this one less than thorough on measures to fight crime, as if anyone with such a plan in these desperate times would give full disclosure or sensitive details on public television.

We got not a peep from the glass-tower folks, though, on plans to improve inter-island transportation or the injection of US$250 million into a redesigned BWIA under chairmanship of their revered colleague, Arthur Lok Jack.

In what may well be his swansong as Opposition Leader, Basdeo Panday, who will open Monday's budget debate, has already sneered, saying the estimates were "just a shopping list of everything people want", as though it were an entirely bad approach to governance to satisfy people's desires.

Predictably, he too will table pessimistic opinion of the Government's ability to implement its promises (of course, we can always wake him when it is over) but, perhaps, he might spare us the agony by being honest and simply saying: "Oh Budget, boy!"

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