What A Difference A Year Makes

Traditionally, at the start of each year, heads of state lay out for the citizenry what they can expect of their leaders and the path their country would follow. True to this ritual, on the eve of 2010, Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer presented his New Year’s address.

Except for a few sound bytes, his speech has generated very little by way of excitement. Perhaps this is expected in a country grown wary of speeches which impact little on the day-to-day existence of ordinary men and women.

One year ago, on New Year’s Eve 2009, the world was just beginning to wake up to the realities of a global recession, which had not yet quite reached our shores. So, at that time, although Spencer referred to a “challenging year for Antigua & Barbuda,” he framed it against the backdrop of the world environment and came to the conclusion that ”We have succeeded beyond all expectations.”

A glance back at last year’s address, however, would lead to the inescapable conclusion, ”Oh what a difference a year makes.”

Little could he have known that many of the successes of which he expressed pride then, would fade. For, only two months into 2009, the nation was hit by the number one story of the year: the Allen Stanford debacle.

Spencer had no way of forecasting the results of the March 12 general elections (which some say delivered a body blow to the ruling administration), and his address highlighted what he perceived as his party’s successes at facing up to its debt obligations, and implementing measures to improve the lives of the less fortunate.

Oh what a difference a year makes. One year later, as 2010 dawns, many of the gains of last year will be reversed.

A case in point: Spencer said in 2009, ”To reduce the hardship on all citizens, the UPP administration removed import surcharges and taxes, including the sales tax, from a continually expanding basket of food items and other essential consumer items.”

Contrast this to what was said during the 2010 Budget Debate. The citizenry has been put on notice that the basket of goods has shrunk significantly and on a number of items for which hither fore there were no taxes paid, this would no longer be so.

One year ago, in his New Year missive, and on the eve of the elections, the PM pledged to expand the School Meals’ Programme. In this the age of austerity, we are being told all such expansions have been halted and, in fact, the programme is one of which government intends to outsource.

Of the plan to construct the first of a number of secondary schools, this too, seemed to have been pushed off the stove, as is the promise of the establishment of more public health facilities across the country. A year does make a difference.

Now in the throes of a full-fledged recession, the chief servant speaks of “sacrifice” and “patriotism” and “putting country first.” His clarion call is “setting a new course of sustainable economic management and social development.”

While Spencer did not dwell on government’s pending move to access IMF funding, on most everyone’s mind is what this country will be like under such a regime. Despite government’s assurances to the contrary, the fiscal discipline that the body requires of this country is alien to our culture, and of itself would be considered hardship.

Plans for public sector reform have been repeated so many times as to be meaningless; except this time around government will have little choice in cutting waste. Intentions to improve revenue collection are indeed laudable and just might happen for the self-same reason.

Immigration reform has been a favourite football for many a season and has been a staple for New Year’s addresses. This year was no different as once again we are being told, ”government is committed to implementing an enlightened immigration policy…” Perhaps this year, that too, might come to pass, especially if the opposition has its way and a fresh mandate must be sought.

Being a prime minister of a small country is never an easy job, but being head of this nation in the current economic climate must be doubly difficult. The prime minister has acknowledged that the agenda for 2010 is indeed formidable and is asking each of us to shoulder our share of responsibility so that we can all share in the fruits of the opportunities that abound in the country.

May his words not fall on deaf ears.