Noble: What empty Budget chatter reveals about T&T’s future and leadership

“Words are the clothes thoughts wear” — Samuel Beckett, Irish writer.

The Budget debate and its fallout sent me scurrying to recall Beckett’s writings. He is the author of “Waiting for Godot”—a play the late James Lee Wah introduced to me in the early 70s. 

The state of play on the national scene reminded me of the plot: two characters, vagrants, waiting for the mysterious saviour, Godot, who promises that he will appear but never does. The play has two acts; both are meaningless and virtually the same, yet it rivets the audience. 

Photo: Two vagrants converse during the play “Waiting for Godot” put on by the Sydney Theatre Company.
(Copyright Lisa Tomassetti)

Our two political parties are like these personalities, with many empty conversations but no clear view of what they are waiting for.

The chatter revealed the thoughts of our national leadership. We saw how Parliamentarians on both sides think about our children’s future and us as citizens.

While Minister Colm Imbert attempted to make sense of the situation he faced, he never understood the politics of a budget. The Government continuously fails to communicate and connect with the people in the stressful Covid aftermath. 

A budget determines the origins and application of public resources and delivers on economic, social, legal and administrative functions. Policy and planning processes, as well as allocating resources, is essentially political matter.

Photo: Minister of Finance Colm Imbert (left) talks to an EBC official during a Standing Finance Committee presentation in Parliament.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament 2022)

The extent to which we will depend on the markets to produce desirable social outcomes is implied in a budget. We have witnessed an attempt to get ‘the sums right’ without understanding the need to bring the ‘entitled’ nation along with you. 

Mrs Kamla Persad-Bissessar continues to rally her partisans with populist chatter but did not understand the calculation of the ‘sums’ involved. Neither Minister Imbert nor Opposition Leader Mrs Bissessar struck you as a leader who could steer us safely through the Valley of Death! They, therefore, left an unenlightened, fearing population.

Oil prices are high because of Russia’s war with Ukraine and supply chain interruptions, not a rise in global demand. The world’s economic recovery post-Covid continues to be uncertain. What should Trinidad and Tobago do? 

For some, it is the last chance to splurge! Share out the bounty! Forget the children and live for today! 

Image: A satirical take on life after Covid-19.
(Copyright Dave Grandlund)

The genuine oil sheikhs, the Saudis, have decided to stash theirs away until 2023 to fulfil long-term geo-political and social goals—but we, the Trust Fund babies, want to spend all to maintain our lifestyles. 

Some of our politicians still live in the past when the Hyatt Hotel was their headquarters, and there was a stream of foreign investors. 

To demonstrate the volatility of the world economic situation, the Saudis restricted their oil output and put the strong US dollar under pressure this week. 

In 1971, John Connally, then US Treasury Secretary, said: “the dollar is our currency, but it’s your problem.” This week, the Saudis countered spectacularly as they played chess and not checkers. 

Image: A satirical take on the relationship between USA and Saudi Arabia over oil prices.

“This cut was driven by geopolitics, not just market fundamentals,” said Ben Cahill, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “OPEC+ is pushing back against efforts by oil importers to shape the market, including the price cap on Russian oil, US SPR releases, and coordinated action among buyers. It’s a risky move.”

How will we be affected as a “peewat” nation in an integrated world? What is the consequence of our dollar being pegged to the US one? How do we plan for our future when global decisions are based on geo-political considerations rather than demand and supply? 

Apart from Marla Dukharan, nobody discusses the growing “Errors and Omissions” item in our Balance of Payments accounts. Is this corruption or capital flight?  

In the initial post-budget discussions, the grasping nature of our manufacturers was on display. They admitted that the Government had been supportive of their drive for exports. Yet, they did not itemise the Government’s financial support to their Covid- affected workers.

Image: Change is gonna come?
(Copyright Kal)

The Government paid TT$4bn in VAT returns, but they wanted all of theirs. In personal conversations with some manufacturers, about 16% of their VAT is still outstanding. 

A TT$4bn VAT payment is more than some ministries, including the Ministry of Works and Transport, received—in comparison, the remedial education budget was a measly TT$50m. 

Nothing about the implications of the foreign exchange gained! Their convoluted description of VAT and exports requires some scrutiny. Marla Dukharan scratches the surface.

Can we depend on them to help us change our dependence on oil and gas? They who are like Oliver Twist: “Please, Sir, can I have more?!”

Image: A satirical take on the one percent in a financial crisis.

As a nation, we do not think inter-generationally. The UWI Professor of Practice, Andrew Jupiter and Dr Pedro van Meurs released a detailed research paper titled “Suggested Energy Transition Policy for Trinidad and Tobago, The Next 50 Years” on 30 June 2021. 

This week, The UWI Dr Don Samuel looked backwards, identifying the possible cause of our persistent flooding as “Inadequate and obsolete drainage”.

We believe in short-termism. We have no past and no future. Only one day is in our week: today! So no strategic discussion took place in Parliament. Mauvaise langue and sloppy talk would do. 

Poor Explainer has now died, and nothing but the names has changed.

A pivotal antidote to that short-term thinking is to have conversations with the affected parties. Instead, we saw that political pedigree means nothing when the grandchildren and children—Faris Al Rawi, Lisa Morris-Julian and Brian Manning—are spoilt, entitled children. 

Lionel Seukeran and Leroy Morris must be revolving wherever they are. But CLR James foretold this.

If MP Keith Scotland were still in school, the teacher would have sent a report card saying: “Must pay attention. Must apply himself.” These young ones reflected the story of the fabled Marie Antoinette!

As a nation, are we missing an opportunity to pair Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly with MP Anita Haynes? The nation’s children would benefit. 

The old-timers, on both sides, mumbled forgettable contributions. Ease the pain, put them on a pension quickly.

Photo: Minister of Education Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly (left) autographs her book, ‘Nyan… Inside Out’, for St Joseph’s Convent (PoS) student Surayya Carrington (right) while her mom, Ayinka Nurse, looks on during the Wired868 Write Start prize giving on 15 December 2021.
(Courtesy Karla Ramoo/bmobile)

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley has apologised for his intemperate outbursts, but can he evict Mrs Bissessar, who lives rent-free in his head?

He needs to focus on training his ministers. For example, he must teach Energy Minister Stuart Young that the oil majors are not long-term good boys. They run businesses to make a profit.

For instance, in 2011, Canada’s National Energy Board predicted that tar-sands-oil production would triple by 2035. By February 2021, Exxon Mobil took their entire Canadian oil sands reserves off their books. In a wink! Guyana is now a priority!

How wise is this new arrangement of not having the Energy Ministry’s technocrats accompany the duo? 

Photo: Minister of Energy and Energy Industries Stuart Young.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament 2020)

The sudden appearance and announcement by the former Finance Minister seeking to contest the post of the political leader raise many questions. Does Mrs Karen Nunez-Tesheira’s emergence add clarity to long-term futures thinking? Or is she merely the female version of Watson Duke and Gary Griffith? 

What should we do with our unexpected windfall? What do we want for our children? That should determine how we assess our leaders. 

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