I am not a financial expert, or an avid follower of the budgets presented over the years. I am an average citizen who due to my personal circumstances, decided that it was important to carefully listen to our finance minister for this budget. So far 2020 has been a year like no other, so, it is important to acknowledge the difficulty and pressure that was laid on the finance minister for his very first budget. Expectations were at an all-time high for some much-needed relief, and the hemicycle was heavy with an anxious anticipation. A rightful reflection of the mood of the people.
The budget presentation is a yearly ritual in Mauritius. An event that sets the pace for the next financial year. It should inspire trust and give hope to a nation. I was therefore surprised to find it being delivered by a Minister who had chosen to remain seated. Body language is a key factor in public speaking and this decision had an impact. The Minister, hunched over his iPad and speaking through a mask, had made it harder for us to trust him.
Nevertheless, we were gifted with a presentation outlining the “New Normal” which happened to have many parallels with the old normal. The boosting of the construction sector was in line with the plans to renew infrastructure and it was accompanied with promises of faster payments from the public sector. It begs the question on how late those payments usually were. Hotels and businesses that rely on tourism were left wanting and somewhat underfunded in their time of need. Except for the National Carrier of course. A one line mention in the presentation that was equal to a funding of 9 billion rupees in the appendix. There was also a cameo appearance by the Liverpool Football Club. No comment.
There was a mention that Mauritius would no longer follow the direction taken by others but would forge its own path. Yet, we continue to simply prop up the sugar estates with subsidies time and time again. No reform, no innovation just taxpayer money to keep the industry alive. An industry attached to a ventilator. And what should we make of the Mauritius Investment Corporation? A “Limited” company and therefore a private company, set up to distribute up to 80 billion rupees as they deem fit. This has awfully close parallels to Malaysia’s 1MDB, an investment fund created from 700 million US dollars of public funds that was privately managed. At this point in time 1MDB is more that 3 billion US dollars in debt and the Malaysian people will end up paying.
The Solidarity Fund can be viewed as a step in the right direction. Wealthier individuals can afford to contribute more to the public coffers. Whether the 25% is too much, and whether the threshold is at the right level, is a story for another day. That being said, only “resident Mauritian Citizens” will have the obligation to contribute via this levy. What of our fellow foreign permanent residents who have accrued even more advantages through this budget? Will they be exempt from this levy? Should they not be held to the same standards as Mauritian Citizens? I once wrote that as a country we have always provided more to our foreign friends and that it was time to focus on Mauritians. The “New Normal” does not reflect that.
Word of caution for those who vehemently protested the implementation of the Smart ID card. That document is issued to you at 18. A bank account will now automatically be issued to you at birth. This is probably a ripple effect from the difficulties in accounting for the informal workers at the start of COVID. I will let you interpret the potential long-term implications. All in all, this budget had left me uninspired and more anxious about my future and my country’s future. Time will tell whether I was right. I hope it proves me wrong.