Wed | Apr 24, 2019

Gordon Robinson | Inspirational public servants

Published:Sunday | March 17, 2019 | 12:12 AM
Clarke
Sykes
Golding
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It’s always been generally accepted that “inspirational” and “Finance Minister” don’t belong in the same sentence.

Surely, to use them consecutively would be to create such an oxymoron that the writer’s credibility would be shattered and his language skills brought into question. Obviously, “boring” is more appropriate.

Well, it looks like Jamaica finally has an exception, in the shape of one Nigel Clarke, who has proven the rule.

In a column headlined ‘Westminster’s Weakness: Personality Over Principle’ (Gleaner, March 11, 2018), I critiqued some of Peter Bunting’s asinine comments regarding Nigel Clarke (including the notorious “black royalty” reference) and the equally idiotic consequence of Westminster that forced Nigel to run for MP in order to become minister. Then, I wrote about him:

“ ... his qualifications are spotless, his patriotic intentions established, and his ability to manage any Cabinet portfolio incontrovertible. The issue is, why should this eminently qualified individual have to go out on political hustings, make campaign promises upon which he can’t possibly deliver, and, when successful, use much of his time and energy focusing on local issues like potholes and poor water supplies instead of being able to concentrate exclusively on helping develop policy and running a ministry?

Management of a Cabinet ministry, to include the effective use of scarce national resources, requires the type of education that Nigel Clarke was fortunate and deserving to have received and to which every Jamaican youth should aspire.

In order to effectively run a Cabinet ministry, the minister must be able to employ critical thinking. Critical thinking would lead a Cabinet minister to be cautious of spending huge sums, causing massive dislocation, or plugging a diagnosed leak on some Cornwall Regional floors, only to discover that the problem was a leaking roof … .

I’m confident, based on knowledge of Dr Clarke’s history, that he’ll do more critical thinking on any assigned portfolio and less profiling for cameras.”

From day one, Nigel Clarke repeatedly confirmed my recommendation. He has already taken several small steps forward for Jamaica, including his stated intent to cut the umbilical cord between the Finance Ministry and the Bank of Jamaica (BOJ); relieve the regulatory stress on pension funds; and reduce government interference in foreign exchange markets.

On Thursday, March 7, he took a giant leap forward for Jamaica in introducing historic and immediately effective tax cuts to a variety of inane and counter-productive tariffs.

You know you’re doing the right thing when your biggest critics can only say you could’ve done more or cut different taxes. But the tax cuts were clinically thought out, strategic, and, most importantly, sent a psychological message to hard-working Jamaicans that Government knows they’re overtaxed and will, when it can, do something about it. This is a huge motivational tool, no matter the carping and complaining about who benefits.

The one I celebrated loudest was the abolition of Minimum Business Tax, which was a cruel imposition of a tax with the singular purpose of improving Government’s cash flow and had NOTHING to do with profit, profitability or even earnings. It caused real hardship to many small operators, including your humble scribe.

One year, I misread the requirements and failed to pay the tax. So in my tax return at the end of that fiscal year, I didn’t claim it as a credit. TAJ (Tax Administration Jamaica) still summoned me to a meeting, forced me to pay it again, and promised I could claim the overpayment as a refund on my next return.

DWL!

THAT didn’t work as for months, I’ve been hounded to pay it a third time.

So good riddance to bad rubbish!

In response, Mark Golding, again sounding more like a party leader than a finance spokesperson, covered the gamut of national undertakings, including ganja. When he got around to economics, he struggled to credibly critique the tax cuts, falling back on the old “no benefit for the poor” chestnut that’s more overworked and tired than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.

His call for tax relief for taxi operators, when gas tax is the only tax they pay, would’ve been funny if it wasn’t so visibly desperate. His populist call for tax relief for the unemployed would be like paying a deceased creditor with a cheque in his coffin. The unemployed need a job, not tax relief!

He sneered at “trickle-down economics” (a mischaracterisation of the tax cuts’ intent) but ignored the growth potential of incentivising small businesses.

He made some telling points on the expenditure Budget, especially his call for more socially conscious spending in health and education. The Budget has failed education miserably. For example, Mark’s exposure of the incongruity of student loan requirements was spot on. It’s Government’s obligation to maximise Jamaica’s human capital. No deserving student should sacrifice tertiary education for lack of funding, and the State must ease the burden of repaying student loans.

WHEEL AND COME AGAIN

But, overall, the Budget left him with nothing to do but recap PNP history from the 1950s to 2015 and promise more of the same. He just doesn’t get it. That was then. This is now. Voters roundly rejected PNP “achievements” in February 2016. If PNP doesn’t wheel and come again; take time for introspection and renewal; discard the old and bring in the new; in a word, CHANGE, rejection is likely to continue.

Now, Nigel, you’ve set a high bar, so expectations have risen accordingly. You’re now expected to follow up on the principle YOU say you espouse of reducing or eliminating taxes that are “distortionary”.

Some gravalicious critics have suggested that you should’ve reduced GCT (general consumption tax). But you reduced its “distortionary” effect by lifting the threshold for reporting. GCT is a genuinely egalitarian tax. Those with more disposable income pay more.

The world’s most “distortionary” tax is income tax. Whenever I venture on to our roads, for example, my life is threatened by robot taxis. Very few pay income tax. Those of us in the formal system don’t have that option. I have a dream that, one day, Jamaica will abolish all income taxes and rely solely on taxes like GCT.

Large businesses can afford to hire expensive accountants to restrict their exposure to income taxes. This encourages Government to act oppressively, in a frantic need for revenues, by hounding PAYE workers for more.

I recently represented a tourism player admirably trying to defend its workers from this sort of oppression. The company insisted that its workers wear branded uniforms for marketing, security, and identification purposes. These uniforms were of no use off property, and workers were forced to change from and into their “home clothes” upon arriving at and leaving work daily.

Yet TAJ insisted on taxing their already meagre salaries at 25 per cent of the cost of the uniform to the employer (which is properly a tax deductible expense for the employer). Again, this served no purpose but to impoverish workers who must wear branded uniforms while unjustly enriching government coffers.

The matter was eventually settled, but I urge Nigel Clarke to take a close look at this oppressive system of raiding poor, defenseless Jamaicans’ pockets. To what end? Prosperity for the people? Or to facilitate announcements that revenue collections exceed projections? Are CEOs of large corporations taxed on the cost of their business suits? I understand taxing cash uniform allowances, but THIS? It’s unwarranted, immoral, and, oh yes, “distortionary”.

PRAISE FOR THE CHIEF

While I’m on the subject of inspirational public servants, I must praise our new chief justice for his motivational embrace of his role as servant of the people and his focus on improving deliverables that should’ve been automatic in the justice system.

His transformational style of communicating directly with the people for whom he works (us) is beyond inspiring. It displays a commendable appreciation of the modern world and his role in it. It behooves every component of the system to do their bit to help him achieve his vision.

Personally, I could’ve done without the ceremonial garb for his recent TV address, but I suppose that symbolism, is still important. It’s only that the bib and tucker is more British than Jamaican symbolism so, Chief, a business suit next time. Please.

There’s no getting away from the acclaim that is due to Government for its appointment of persons like Bryan Sykes and Nigel Clarke, even taking into account the ham-fisted method used to appoint Chief Justice Sykes. It proves that even bad systems can throw up good results if persons of goodwill and thoughtfulness are in charge.

But it remains an unforgiveable injustice to all Jamaicans that we must depend on “good” people to operate a “bad” system. We deserve a system that encourages “good” people and punishes “bad” ones.

Meanwhile, we must be thankful for small mercies. And big ones like Nigel Clarke and Bryan Sykes.

Peace and Love!

 

- Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com