Today is Budget Day here in Antigua and Barbuda, and were it not for the fact that this year could be an election year, it would be a big yawn – another dull and insipid litany of hare-brained schemes and fanciful ideas that never amount to much.
Of course, the lack of imagination and unseriousness by those who prepare the budget, is evident in the very titles chosen for many of this administration’s budgets. For example, in 2015, the budget statement was delivered under the title, REBUILDING OUR NATION: A CALL FOR ACTION, PERFORMANCE AND EXCELLENCE. We all know how that turned out. There was precious little of any of the above. In 2016, it was entitled, REBUILDING A STRONGER, SAFER AND PROSPEROUS ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA. In 2017, it was BUILDING AN ECONOMIC POWERHOUSE THROUGH INNOVATION, CREATIVITY AND PEOPLE PARTICIPATION. Sigh! In 2018, the budget was entitled, REBUILDING TOGETHER: SECURING A PROSPEROUS NATION. And in 2019, it was (yawn!), BUILDING A MORE RESILIENT ECONOMY. Good grief! Seems, those responsible for preparing the titles for this administration’s budgets have a fetish for the word, ‘building.’ We suggest that the inability to expand their rhetorical/verbal horizons is a metaphor for the ‘same-old same old’ contained in all their budgets.
This is an administration with delusions of grandeur. The details contained in all of its budgets are very far removed from reality – especially the reality that the ordinary men and women of Antigua and Barbuda are experiencing. To be sure, we have to be extremely careful with this year’s budget, because it will contain a surfeit of glorious and wonderful promises designed to seduce the populace. Remember, this is probably an election year, and this smoke and mirrors administration will attempt to score points and mend fences with the people that they have ticked off over these past few years – nurses, pensioners, contractors, quarry workers, farmers, Public Works employees, Customs Officers, former LIAT pilots, former Jolly Beach workers, frazzled road-users, frustrated homeowners who cannot seem to get water when they need it, and so on and so forth. It is a cynical and pathetic ploy, and we ought not to be deceived by it. Most everything contained in this election year budget MUST be taken with copious grains of salt.
Consider, if you will, some of the unrealised fat-chat contained in the 2021 Budget. Here’s he of a high place on the highly-touted work-from-the-beach plan. “Mr. Speaker, though our source markets have restricted travel in an effort to control the spread of Covid-19, we are not taking a wait and see attitude. Through our “Your Place in the Sun” and “Business on the Beach” campaigns, as well as, the Nomad Digital Residency programme, we are offering enticing options to individuals who can travel safely, to reside and work in our country, while enjoying the recuperative sunshine and beauty of our twin islands.” Ha! Sounds good on paper when it is uttered from the lectern in the sacred halls of Parliament, with the invited guests dressed up in fancy hats and three-piece suits, right? Well, guess what? While similar programmes were a resounding success in a number of other countries such as Barbados, in our blessed country, it was an unmitigated FLOP! Nada! Never mind the hopeful talk from the Chief of Staff in the Office of the Prime Minister, Lionel ‘Max’ Hurst, and other sweet-sounding fare from others in high places, when asked about the progress of our Nomad Digital Residency programmes, only a handful of people bothered to come to Antigua as part of those programmes. Seems, notwithstanding our absolutely delightful beaches, they were turned off by our horrible roads, our dreadful water and electricity situation, and the extremely poor internet service.
But wait, there’s more! Here’s what he of a high place had to say about one of the most vexing situations of our time – the Social Security nightmare in which we find ourselves. He recites all the wonderful things that his administration has supposedly done to set the scheme on a proper footing, never mind that it is bovine scatology (bs) that “stinketh up to high heaven.” He piously blames everything and everybody else except his piteous administration, then he thunders from on high, “Mr. Speaker, our government will continue to pay more than its required contributions, to help bridge the gap created by those private sector contributors who are unemployed at this time. As the world economy recovers, we in Antigua and Barbuda can expect a gradual return to pre-Covid levels of employment. Cash flow for Social Security will improve and pensions and benefits will be made in a timelier manner. Until then, Mr. Speaker, the nation can be assured that our government and Social Security will pursue initiatives to manage the situation. These include making payments to the most vulnerable pensioners first, ensuring compliance by private sector employers who are still operational, and by introducing a voluntary contributions programme.”
Needless to say, he of a high place uttered his Social Security drivel with a straight face, and without the slightest trace of irony. To be sure, our Social Security recipients are hardly amused. The aggravation and stress that they are experiencing on a monthly basis is driving them to the brink of utter hopelessness and desperation, and they chupz and curse when the budget presenter declares from the podium, “This Labour Party Administration cares! And, we not only say what we mean, we mean what we say!” (LOL) (Laugh out loud)! Clearly, the administration is out of touch! The reality that our Social Security recipients are living, especially this past year, is nothing short of something from a Franz Kafka novel. If you recall, Kafka’s work is characterised by anxiety, alienation and despair, and his characters often face ridiculous situations. So, when he of a high place waxes lyrical about his wonderful administration, our senior citizens simply shake their heads. They have borne the brunt of this government’s ineptitude, and its pretense at caring about their plight, is disingenuous. We will use the budget presenter’s own words, uttered in his jokey 2021 budget to condemn him, “It is farcical . . . Politics does not get any lower than that!” Look at the 2021 budget, and you will see that precious little of what was promised ever materialised.
For example, there was fancy talk about work on the Darkwood Bridge, the Herbert’s Main Road, the Burma Road and the Royal Gardens Road. None of that has happened. There was also talk about work on the Anchorage Road, the Old Parham Road and Valley Road North. We are still waiting! Similarly, there was hifalutin talk about reverse osmosis plants, here, there, and everywhere, to solve our water woes. We are still waiting, and our patience has worn thin. Seems, the good minister responsible for water was addressing himself when he declared words to the effect that, ‘Any government that cannot provide water to its citizens is a WICKED government, and it must be voted out of office!’ Sigh! Seems, he is being “hoisted by his own petard!” [HAMLET, Shakespeare]
On the question of agriculture, he of a high place, our jester in chief, made like Feste, the most famous Shakespearean court fool [TWELFTH NIGHT], and unseriously declared, “Mr. Speaker, a bright light in the nation’s economic activity – and one that illumes possibilities for the future – is agriculture. Although affected by the impact of Covid-19, the agriculture, livestock and forestry sector returned growth of 1.1 percent in 2020, as compared to 0.5 percent in 2019. This improved performance is mainly due to the quick and effective implementation of government’s policies which included: granting farmlands to 50 new farmers, distribution of seedlings throughout the sector, promotion of back yard farming, improvement in infrastructure, and increasing the availability and access to water on farms.” Chupz! Tell all of that, Mishta Speakah, to the struggling farmers in Antigua and Barbuda. That grand talk was a far cry from the reality of the farmers, and they are hardly impressed at the government’s commitment to their livelihoods. He of a high place can sell that manure to the birds!
And the plethora of failure – broken promises and shattered dreams – on the part of this administration continued unabated this past year. Consider the following, if you will from the 2021 budget. Said he of a high place, “The list of projects that are expected to fuel activity in the sector and generate a significant number of jobs in 2021 include: the US$2.5 billion PLH Ocean Club on Barbuda; which is expected to spend US$130 million in 2021 and provide over 400 jobs; the US$45 million renovation and expansion project at the existing Rex Halcyon Hotel by Sunwing; a US$25 million Airport Marriott, with US$10 million to be spent in 2021; the US$100 million beach club at Fort James by Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, with US$20 million to be spent in 2021; the US$20 million Dulcina Project in Barbuda, US$3M to be spent this year; the US$80 million Callaloo Cay Hotel Project at Morris Bay, with US$15 million to be spent in 2021.” Again, with the exception of the PLH Ocean Club project in Barbuda, PRECIOUS LITTLE HAPPENED, OR IS HAPPENING, ON THOSE FRONTS!!! Sigh!
Folks, it is always instructive to take a backward glance at the wonderful projections contained in a budget, and compare those grand dreams to the reality that people are living, one year later. Based on the woeful track record of this hapless administration, we do not hold out much hope that this year’s budget will be any different from the budgets of previous years – the same claptrap! The invited guests at today’s budget presentation will be dressed up in their Sunday bests, and they will dutifully applaud all the inanities on cue. There will be much pomp and circumstance, and as was once said of Shakespeare’s Gratiano in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, he of a high place will “Speak an infinite deal of nothing, more than any man in all Venice. His reasons are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff: you shall seek all day ere you find them; and when you have them, they are not worth the search!”Help us, Lord!
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