When the UDP (United Democratic Party) came to power the first time, in the year 1984, the party liked being the majority in the House of Representatives so much that its members coined a little slogan: “Never again PUP!” No one could blame them for wanting to hold on to power for some time, for the PUP (People’s United Party) had held an iron grip on government through the 1960’s and 1970’s, with the various Opposition parties not coming close to holding a majority in the House of Representatives.
In 1998, the UDP must have coined another ditty, after its candidates were obliterated at the polls in the general elections that year. That one must have been: “Never again retrenchment or any kind of austerity measures that involve the government’s employees!” It is probably a must that every member and prospective member of the party read the story, “The United Democratic Party at 40”, published on their web page at udp.org.bz. In this missive the lesson is that the party had done wonderful things for Belize in its term between 1993 and 1998 (just as it claims it had in its first term between 1984 and 1989), and another victory at the polls would have been theirs, if not for “the 1997 pre-Christmas retrenchment of 800 public officers which proved to be the Achilles Heel of the UDP government.”
The UDP is afoul of the government’s employees at this time, and it is not because it didn’t heed its own advice, not because the party hasn’t done its best with whatever monies are in the national treasury to keep the government’s employees happy. The UDP is in foul territory because of the way it has handled the people’s finances.
The UDP has repeatedly ignored the Finance and Audit (Reform) Act, 2005, which the NTUCB (National Trade Union Congress of Belize) and others had gotten the PUP government of 2003 to 2008 to sign into law. This critical piece of reform led to high hopes that our financial affairs would be better handled, with transparency and accountability. The IMF must have thought that the bad old days were behind us when it stated in its 2008 report that institutions empowered by the 2005 Finance and Audit Reform Act “should complete audits of government financial statements going back to the 1990s as soon as possible.”
The UDP, which has had control of government since 2008, has totally frustrated the optimism that this reform produced. The UDP, almost from the time it won control of the government, in 2008, has also disrespected the critical check-and-balance systems that are essential to good governance. The Prime Minister has refused to reduce his party’s majority on the Public Accounts Committee (and all other oversight bodies), even though it is absolutely clear to every man, woman and child in the country that a government majority on this body doesn’t work, hasn’t worked, will never work. Today, the financial statements languish because the government refuses to be properly audited.
The government’s intransigence led the country’s most powerful union, the Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU), to go on strike in 2016, and to resolve that impasse the UDP promised to deliver on the essential reforms, and to become a signatory to the UNCAC (United Nations Convention Against Corruption).
The UDP has stubbornly resisted delivering on their promises to reform the essential governance systems, and now the NTUCB, the umbrella organization of ten trade unions in Belize, which includes the very active BNTU and the storied but recently dormant PSU (Public Services Union), has picked up the baton and is stepping up the pressure. The NTUCB marched through the streets of Belize City on February 20, to signal to the government that its members are standing firm on their demands.
The UDP is not only resisting reform: the party is hell bent in its endeavors to erect a stone wall to insulate itself from meaningful change. At the last sitting of the House of Representatives, the Prime Minister warned the PUP members that they shouldn’t be so gung-ho about pushing the present government to comply to the letter with some of the financial laws, because when it is their turn to run government they will find them, these laws, very constricting.
The UDP is kicking and screaming against good governance practices that are being demanded by public employees and others; when it comes to job security of government employees, however, the Prime Minister and his party are making sure that there’ll be no cause for complaint there, definitely not in an election year.
In the budget presentation on March 5, the Prime Minister boasted that we have a “thriving, diversified economy … a buoyant jobs market with more than 170,000 working Belizeans, a rock-strong dollar standing on ample foreign reserves, a resilient financial sector with fortress balance sheets and the best paid public service in the region.”
It is difficult to believe that our public servants are the best paid in the region, when the per capita earnings of Costa Ricans is US$9,892, and the per capita earnings of Panamanians is US$11,723, while our per capita earnings is listed at US$4,309 (tradingeconomics.com data for 2018). Indeed there are questions about some of the numbers in the budget, but before we chew on that we have to digest the Prime Minister’s statement that a new “methodology of the gathering and analysis of economic statistics, data and metrics” they are adopting will show that we are doing even better than the experts thought.
It is not expected that the new methodology will amount to much more than a paper story, because there is very little in this budget for the poor – there are no housing projects, no special projects to help our small farmers, no special investments in unskilled Belizeans. Still, we have to be happy because there is one sector that has assurance about their 15th and ending.
The Prime Minister said times are tough, because of the recent drought that severely affected our agriculture sector and looming troubles in the world with the new coronavirus, so there will be “some short-term slippage to our fiscal targets for the ultimate good of the economy and the well-being of the Belizean people.” He said his government is committed to “our public servants, to their increments, to our pensioners, to the operational costs of proper public management and, critically, to our infrastructural campaign (which) simply cannot be paused or pruned.”
The Prime Minister said that personal emoluments for the nation’s 14,000 public officers —police, military personnel, teachers, nurses, doctors, everyone who works for the government – and for approximately 1,000 pensioners amount to “$540.5 million, up from $276.3 million in 2008.”
The UDP deserves praise for securing the pay of the government’s employees, but the government’s employees know that we would be doing better, that their pay checks would be much higher, if the government would only start conducting the nation’s business in a transparent and accountable manner.