She might be a woman just hurting for her country. But the image of a tearful Minister of Trade Paula Gopee-Scoon pleading for loyalty to country in this time of recession, personifies the psychology of helplessness that poses additional risk to the economy.
While reduced revenue could send an economy into recession, intensified fear kills confidence and petrifies a country’s capacity for risk-taking. Just when we need to imagine our way to solutions, we hesitate and seek comfort in retreat.
In the 44 days since the Central Bank called the recession, the government’s message has been singularly focused on cost-cutting and belt-tightening. So emphatic is this message that we might even believe that less spending alone will lead us back on the road of recovery.
Apart from cutting and belt-tightening there has been only sketchy discussion about the rest of the economy beyond oil and gas, how these sectors make the economy move and might be encouraged into becoming active agents of a recovery.
Not all spending is equal. A seven per cent budgetary cut across the state sector could have a differential impact on economic performance depending on what the money foregone was to be spent on.
What purchases are being cancelled? Utilities, products or services? Was the product or service imported or domestic? Was the supplier a big company with many employees or a small or family business? What geographical spend will be affected? And so on…
While the budget deficit is a critical economic indicator, the figures for income and expenditure contain a whole number of variables that require a discriminating approach to cost-cutting if we are to avoid pushing the economy deeper into recession.
The Carnival economy is a prime example of a sector that required a different response in this period of downturn. With its broad community of economic interests, many of which earn rather than consume foreign exchange, the government should have been unequivocal in supporting Carnival as an economic stimulant.
The government may be seriously short on cash, but the country has an expanded class of millionaires and profitable private corporations that should be encouraged to come out and spend, especially on local products. Prize money could even be linked to local content.
In appearing at fetes, the Prime Minister should be emphatic in stating that he is not there on downtime but to support the Carnival as a foreign exchange earner and as the livelihood of thousands, from corn soup vendors to big band businesses.
Simply reducing the subventions to Carnival risks crimping both the Carnival experience as well as its economic potential.
A more discriminating approach, based on a more acute understanding of how Carnival works and where it wastes, could achieve much more with far less by a more strategic redistribution of funding.
But no government needs any more advice on this. There are enough studies and reports done on the sector.
With just three weeks left in the season, it will be interesting to quantify the impact of economic belt-tightening on the Carnival economy.
Ultimately, the biggest challenge in confronting the recession will be the culture of the PNM and how it defines the culture of yet another of its administrations. The party’s stated commitment to decentralisation and local government reform indicates an effort to break with its past of highly centralised power.
But culture is never easy to change.
In the absence of clear policy, strategy and structures to ground change, entities return to what they know best. Already, there is a leaden-ness to this administration which is in sharp contrast to the arbitrariness of the previous government.
Somewhere in the middle—between these extremes—lies the agility and accountability that good governance requires.
It also takes moral authority, trust sometimes being the only reason that someone will take your hand when even logic fails. In this regard, the government is doing itself no favours by going on the defensive over the matter involving Housing Minister Marlene McDonald.
With the Opposition having filed a complaint against her with the Integrity Commission, the Prime Minister and his Attorney General should simply leave the matter up to the Commission’s investigation. All of us would benefit from allowing the IC to define undue influence under the Act.
Given that the matter involves Ms McDonald’s actions in another government, AG Faris Al-Rawi should advise his colleague to get herself an attorney and stick to his responsibility as the attorney to the Government of T&T.
It was simply outrageous for him to have brought the full authority of his office to her defence in this matter.
The allegation of undue influence against Ms McDonald, which also raises questions about former cabinet member, Emily Dick-Forde, is one that needs to be fully investigated and determined in the public interest.
We have been paying a very high price for failing to allow our institutions to work and to set the standards of behaviour by those in public life. Here is an opportunity to be embraced.
After his tough talk on the platform, and given his need for public trust in this time of recession, the PM should know what he has to do about Ms McDonald’s pending investigation.