Is there fi­nally hope for busi­ness in Saint Lu­cia?

The Star (St. Lucia) - - COMMENT - By Kayra Wil­liams

St. Lu­cia's econ­omy is in dire need of a jump­start. That much was clear through­out last week in dis­cus­sions that ex­tended be­yond press con­fer­ences right on through to ra­dio and tele­vi­sion shows, and every­day con­ver­sa­tion. There seems even now to be a height­ened sense of ur­gency, par­tic­u­larly con­cern­ing the prime min­is­ter's rev­e­la­tion last Mon­day that his ad­min­is­tra­tion had run into unan­tic­i­pated road blocks, placed by his pre­de­ces­sor, among them cal­cu­lated last-minute con­trac­tual ar­range­ments with well-known SLP stal­warts in key po­si­tions. A lit­tle over three months af­ter be­ing elected to of­fice, the prime min­is­ter's frank­ness was ad­mirable; still, he painted a par­tic­u­larly de­press­ing pic­ture of Saint Lu­cia's im­me­di­ate eco­nomic fu­ture.

Last Thurs­day evening TALK host Rick Wayne sat down with Sen­a­tor Ubal­dus Ray­mond, Min­ster in the Min­istry of Fi­nance, to dis­cuss what the Chastanet gov­ern­ment planned to do about the night­mare it claimed to have in­her­ited. Ray­mond had just come out of a press meet­ing with the Caribbean De­vel­op­ment Bank's Direc­tor of Eco­nom­ics, Dr. Justin Ram.

“Peo­ple have been suf­fer­ing for so long,” stated the host at the start of the dis­course, “they ex­pected au­to­matic re­lief within days of your com­ing into of­fice.

"Some­thing that par­tic­u­larly con­cerns me is the of­fi­cial si­lence re­gard­ing the num­ber of busi­nesses that have gone un­der in the last four or five years. There is not a busi­ness in this coun­try that is not on the brink. Very few that have not been forced to place cher­ished staff on ro­ta­tion . . . but we don't hear the politi­cians ad­dress­ing that.”

One day ear­lier, while talk­ing on-air with NewsSpin's Ti­mothy Poleon, Wayne had claimed: “Even the drug push­ers are on the bread­line. Peo­ple can­not afford any­more the re­lief they once got from cheap booze. Most of that is at­trib­uted to bad pol­i­tics, self serv­ing poli­cies . . .”

Asked about the pub­lic per­cep­tion that the gov­ern­ment did not know, or seemed not to care, about the dif­fi­cul­ties con­fronting busi­ness peo­ple, the min­is­ter re­sponded sim­ply: “We are quite aware.” Then he put in a plug for his boss.

“That is the ad­van­tage of hav­ing a prime min­is­ter like Allen Chastanet,” he said. “He comes from a busi­ness back­ground so he un­der­stands what busi­ness peo­ple go through on a daily ba­sis. If all the coun­try's busi­nesses were to fail and shut down . . . the gov­ern­ment could not sur­vive. And no one knows this bet­ter than the prime min­is­ter.”

“Which is why I don't un­der­stand the of­fi­cial at­ti­tude,” said the talk-show host. “It's like let­ting the golden goose die of hunger while you party.”

The topic switched gears to the deadly ef­fects of VAT on life in Saint Lu­cia, and the re­me­dial re­duc­tions promised by the cur­rent gov­ern­ment while cam­paign­ing for of­fice.

“Some­times the sit­u­a­tion seems ir­repara­ble to me,” Wayne said. “You give the promised re­lief from VAT but that re­lief is go­ing to cost the gov­ern­ment . . . or, should I say, the peo­ple. Like giv­ing with your right hand and tak­ing back what you gave with your left.”

The fi­nance min­is­ter re­sponded: “We have myr­iad fis­cal poli­cies. We have other things to do. We will do other things be­sides re­duc­ing the VAT. We have other fis­cal pol­icy mea­sures to mit­i­gate against the pos­si­ble re­duc­tion in VAT rev­enue. I said pos­si­ble, be­cause some­times less pro­vides more.”

He elab­o­rated: “If noth­ing else is done, you're in trou­ble . . . I said pos­si­ble also be­cause the re­duc­tion in VAT could spur even more eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity. Through that height­ened eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity, more rev­enue will be col­lected. That's what we're ex­pect­ing to see hap­pen. I should say we're not re­ally de­pend­ing on the con­sumer to boost spending through the re­duc­tion in the VAT rate; we are en­gaged in other fis­cal con­sol­i­da­tion, other ways of rais­ing rev­enue, within the sys­tem. Be­ing more ef­fi­cient, hav­ing more ef­fi­cient cus­toms de­part­ments . . . hav­ing a more ef­fi­cient In­land Rev­enue depart­ment.”

At that point, the real ques­tion was: How much faith could re­ally be put into the word “ef­fi­ciency” which has been used by ev­ery ad­min­is­tra­tion?

“VAT is sup­posed to be ef­fi­cient,” the fi­nance min­is­ter said. “That's how it was sold. A broad-based tax that is sim­pli­fied and ef­fi­cient. The ques­tion is: Is the cur­rent VAT model ef­fi­cient? It's not. I'm say­ing . . . so we must make it ef­fi­cient. Let us sim­plify it.”

As the con­ver­sa­tion winded down Dr. Ray­mond cited some rec­om­men­da­tions by the CDB's Dr. Justin Ram.

“There needs to be fis­cal con­sol­i­da­tion to en­sure that the debt pro­file of Saint Lu­cia is on a sus­tain­able tra­jec­tory,” Ram had told the me­dia. “We want to em­pha­sise that the re­forms that will re­ally al­low the busi­ness com­mu­nity to thrive are very im­por­tant. The pri­vate sec­tor re­ally needs to be­come the en­gine of growth here.”

The fi­nance min­is­ter promised Prime Min­is­ter Chastanet will be ad­dress­ing the na­tion in Oc­to­ber.

The Fi­nance Min­istry’s Dr. Ubal­dus Ray­mond ap­peared on TALK with Rick Wayne last Thurs­day, shortly af­ter his gov­ern­ment had met with the CDB’s Dr. Justin Ram.

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