Lalit Communique on 2003-4 Budget - Bérenger Budget for Businessmen -
Finance Minister Paul Bérenger, laughing inappropriately throughout his budget speech in the National Assembly earlier this evening and in a spirit of extreme self-congratulation, was clearly courting businessmen. He is no doubt hoping that they will ensure he becomes Prime Minister later this year, thus fulfilling the electoral pact from before the elections of 2000. He seemed most eager to reassure businessmen that the Government is “business friendly”.
The economic situation is, in fact, very grave at the moment. Working people and the youth listening to the Budget Speech at a time when the Free Zone seems near to collapse, will have been hoping to hear of measures to create employment. The Minister made no serious proposals on employment. He pretended that the laying off of 7,800 sugar industry workers was an achievement. He even avoided mentioning a figure for unemployment, announcing shockingly that the World Bank would be called in to “define” unemployment and only then would there even be a statistic. Every year the Government makes concessions to the Private Sector for them to supposedly create employment. Every year the private sector destroys employment.
At the same time, the government’s revenue is increasingly coming from income derived unfairly from the poor and working people who pay a bigger proportion of their revenue on any item on which there is VAT than high earners or companies pay. After having been a country with most revenue coming from Direct Taxes (which can successfully target the rich and the private companies), we are this year to be a country where Government gets more than TWO-THIRDS of its revenue from Indirect Taxes which fall heavily on the lower earners (Rs 22.7 billion from Indirect Tax and Rs 6.4 billion from direct).
Last year each household in Mauritius paid Rs832 per month more than the previous year through VAT. This year, when there is supposedly a “no tax budget”, if we were to believe Minister Bérenger, in fact each household will pay Rs 322 more per month in VAT.
The little price control that existed on basic commodities is now under threat. Paul Berenger announced the intention of the government to abolish and review the “price and supplies control” which according to him are becoming “irrelevant”.
Postal Services which have always brought income to the public chest are now being prepared for total privatization, thus depriving Government of important revenue. This comes on the heels of the privatization of the very lucrative telecommunications sector.
The budget also seems to be addressed to World Bank officials. This is not surprising because Finance Minister Bérenger has already made undertakings to the World Bank in exchange for a Public Expenditure Reform Loan.
Proof of this obsession with reassuring the World Bank can be seen in many of Bérenger’s statements.-
He now announces that old age pensions are no longer “sustainable”, implying they will need perhaps to be means tested, something none of the unions agree with for very good reasons. This expenditure is no longer possible in part because of privatization of services that brought in revenue.
He also mentions an “Implementation Plan” based on supposed “quite positive” responses to the Government Health Sector Reform Plan which everyone knows was both empty and vague. The trade unions took a stand against the White Paper.
He also sings the old tune about ending “rigidity” in the labour market. This means workers must be able to be fired easily and that the existing system for wage compensation for inflation must be stopped. He says he will end labour rigidity “en douceur” through building consensus. This means he intends to trick people.
On housing we have again been treated to the Minister being ridiculous. After promising 5,000 very low cost houses in 5 years, after two years, he announces that they have built 422. He says another 670 will be completed later in the year. That means he is way behind, and will get further behind. He is still announcing the same old 317 “sites and services” that remain a permanent mirage. The Government’s own survey shows that there was in the year 2000 a back-log of 20,000 houses for very poor people.
Both CEB and CWA are threatened with imminent privatization.
CEB will be reduced to a distributor of power, while all production will be done by private enterprises. There is no provision for any major research and development into genuinely renewable sources of energy, like solar, wind, wave and tide energy.
As if to reassure multinational companies like Monsanto, the Minister of Finance pretends that there has already been a national debate on Genetically Modified Organisms. He announces a new law to ‘regulate handling of GMO’s’. He even adds a very worrying rider, saying the law will “protect plant breeders’ rights”. This is very shocking, as workers’ rights are not considered worth mentioning, nor women’s rights, nor small planters’ rights, but suddenly our Minister is concerned with a new category of people, mainly multinational corporations called “plant breeders”, i.e. those who commercialize GMO’s. As people are now aware, the only GMO’s that get commercialized are those that provide immediate profits e.g. for seeds that are resistant to the particular herbicide the same Multinational commercializes.
As for the imminent invasion by hotel “zones” through the IRS projects, it is now clear that the Beach Authority was set up for the benefit of investors in tourism. The people can only hope for their beaches to be totally ruined by chaotic tourist invasion.
The budget, taken as a whole, is a sign of the Government’s perpetual drift into the claws of the very system that is so heavily in crisis at the moment. The MCB scandal shows just how totally corrupt and out of control the business world has become. Then the Minister of Finance plays further into their hands.
Rajni Lallah, for LALIT
9th June, 2003
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