For once, in many years, I didn’t partake in the Budget Speech ritual. Instead, I chose to happy-hour after work… with reason, since it looks like that after Friday’s announcements, I won’t be able to afford the occasional drink outside the comforts of my home for a while to come ! (I didn’t resist the pull of the next morning’s online version though.)
Although I am all for the price hikes on the vices, to me, the most vicious aspect of this budget was the assortment of fiscal “abolitions”, none of which are going to make my pockets heavier, but are likely to do so for those who already have too much. So, the “Solidarity Tax” – the Sithanen-induced, Robin-Hood-type law of “tax the rich to help the poor” – has been annihilated. The Rs 7.3 billion National Resilience Fund (NRF), which looks like a revamped Additional Stimulus Package, is also set to help a lot of the Government’s private/corporate buddies. Hotels will “pay the environment protection fee only if they are profitable” … as if they’re ever (truly) non-profitable. Of course, none of these fit in with prior green economy projects and promises. To top this up, “CSR will now be computed as 2% of chargeable income instead of 2% of book profits” … and the winner is : the Private Sector !
Perhaps one good “abolition” is the one supposed to encourage more commercial tenants to conduct their businesses in the appropriate areas, as opposed to plaguing local neighbourhoods with all sorts of stands and stores ! However, “Government will compensate… for revenue foregone” and that’s not the only thing Government is thinking of compensating, courtesy of taxpayers’money ! Paragraph 167 : “To stimulate the interest of foreign film makers, Government will contribute 25% to agreed expenses incurred in Mauritius” … oh really ? Isn’t there a lot more to be done with the money earmarked for this purpose ? Care for more water and energy, anyone ?
There is also a pungent flavour of privatization which emanates from this budget, with “disinvestment” from public corporations, strategic partnerships being sought for everything from water to logistics and fisheries… even civil servants who often work much, much less than the 40-hour week their corporate counterparts do, may have to work Saturdays… and frankly, that has to be the best idea of all !
Next : “Double Taxation Avoidance Agreements and Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements” with African states ; among these : Angola, Burkina Faso, and South Sudan. I don’t remember any of these being part of BRIC or G20 and they’re probably LDCs (that’s Least Developed Countries). Honestly, how much trade or investment can we get from such places ? Also : “foreign students will now be allowed to take up employment on a part-time basis,” apparently to attract more foreign students to Mauritius ! Why do we want more foreign students if we don’t have enough space for our own… and why allow them to work when our own people are having trouble finding employment ?
The Finance Minister, whose clean-cut composure is legendary, clearly has distaste for dirt : “13.5 million rupees for the MSPCA to intensify the campaign to control the population of stray dogs”, a whopping 10 million more than last year ! He’s also raising the fees on billboards (they can be an eyesore, he said) as well as encouraging NHDC housing estates to have a “syndic” who will “maintain common areas in a clean and orderly state.” Schools will be granted half a million rupees each to clean up their act. Last, but certainly not least, let’s not forget the fiscal adjustments on cosmetic items which will ensure I can afford to wash my hair more often and perhaps look a tad prettier. I will probably also shed quite a few (of my many) pounds : Rs 150 million compared to the Rs 1-billion Food Security Fund pledged three years ago. I suppose it would cost the State less money if we all starved and dropped dead, since nothing was done about the soaring food prices. Nothing in this budget shows how less than one fifth of our GDP is going to be spent on importing food… and that means no immediate relief for a gross (not fat) majority of the population.
Of course I can laud some of the initiatives taken by the Government, like the Sponsored Pre-Job Training Initiative which will introduce 8000 young people into the world of work. Our macho nation also decided it was time to address the female unemployment issue, fomenting pre-school grants and encouraging workplace childcare. Perhaps the proposed Mauritius Schools Football League “which will organise Saturday inter-school tournaments” will finally pull us out of the 189th place we hold in the FIFA world ranking. But that’s if we can eventually feed and water ourselves to have enough energy to even play football. But maybe the Government forgot that item…
Overall, it wasn’t a pre-election budget, not a “populist” one… and certainly not one which was intended to make the People love Government and keep it in power. Very little was done for People… to bring relief to unprecedented hardships, levied by the tough “economic situation”. But who cares ? Come next year, not enough people may live to remember anything… and the Government will just love doing it all over again !