What do Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley’s rebuke of the civil servants and the closure of Chaguanas’ MovieTowne have in common?
Are these connected to the car tax exemptions furore? Why is there chatter about the foreign exchange rate and fear of liquidity and solvency for businesses and our government alike? They are all the result of the economic policies adopted and the poor performance of our elites.
This country has been a longtime oil and gas producer, but great social and economic disparities persist. It is connected to the global world with major global oil and gas players resident here, but large numbers of citizens experience unpleasant lives.
The main commodities, sugar then oil, were always linked to the global economy through the ownership of the dominant companies and the financial markets. The government adopted the position of allowing the companies free rein, while collecting royalties. The government and us saw its job as running the country and sharing freebies.
As a response to the 1970s, the government nationalised and created state enterprises, which largely became pools of inefficiencies supported by the resources that remained at the government’s disposal. Apart from the NGC and the Pt Lisas Estate, there was little attempt at creating an engine of growth.
In the 1980/90s, we switched to the use of a singular lens—financial—to evaluate the decisions for the society and were most interested in suppressing inflation, even while inflicting great social costs. Flush with the benefit of the OPEC dominance, we adopted the use of financial measures and stock prices as the main indicators of societal performance. The underprivileged were pulled into a ‘devil take the hindmost’ race.
The distribution of wealth changed dramatically. There was an influx of overseas financial players to participate in what was a happy ‘perfect storm’—high oil and gas prices meeting new success in exploration. In so doing, we proved that Joseph Stiglitz was right: growth can lead to an increase in poverty even while bringing enormous benefit.
A core economic principle, espoused by our prime ministers, was ‘money is no problem’; and they believe(d) that one more oil or gas find was all we needed.
By 2008, then Prime Minister Patrick Manning and his chief business sidekick floated the idea of a private executive jet. Columnist Raffique Shah rebuked the move: ‘ostentation is not something to be tolerated in a society still riddled with poverty’.
The CAL chair incredibly retorted that the non-acquisition of the jet would not mean ‘the immediate acquisition of more hospital beds’! But we were not outraged. We could afford a hamburger that quadrupled in price when served at MovieTowne, Invaders Bay.
Neither did the non-energy sector need exports. For certain, they went on export trips which really were fun times in disguise. There was, however, neither the hard work of market development nor the investment in plant and equipment. What you made you could sell locally. Everything was good.
The arrogance showed in the acquisition of spanking new chariots that swished the captains of industry across our potholed roads that often flooded. The prices rose and nobody cared. Productivity talk was for our Barbadian friends.
This ‘free for all’ is why we missed the 2014 performances by Dr Roodal Moonilal (‘fully equipped with a Ph D… receiving a call from a constituent… that their cesspit overflow’) and Dr Rowley (‘the only thing that they could have done…was to seek to take away a benefit which had been there for the longest while…’)—both ably egged on by Mr Colm Imbert, advocating for their right to car exemptions.
According to Richard Lord of the Guardian newspaper, the Salaries Review Commission got ‘fierce political backlash… in a rare show of unity’. The SRC job evaluation recommendation in the same report never got support, even though Dr Rowley correctly raised issues of equity between office holders.
The line of argument raised by Dr Moonilal confuses the work of a member of parliament and that of the local government councillor. But who was looking? Box drains and all reach in the Parliament.
Meanwhile, the NGC was being busily and quietly raped, and the dividends and public relations budgets were squandered.
‘If the priest could play, who is we?’, chimed in the public service. They got the hush-money moments before the 2015 elections. Productivity? Uh?
Politicians stay popular by preventing the public from learning that they preach public interest but serve special interests. The 2015 revelation by the then Central Bank governor to the newly installed finance minister was shocking.
The Treasury, too, was a victim of rape and was left helpless and bereft of any dignity.
How do we fix this? We have to fix the Central Statistical Office/National Statistical Institute of TT. We have spent loads of money and at least two administrations examining what ought to be done but there appears to be no urgency to implement.
The country is like Alice in Wonderland. We simply have no data to plan with. This is not in the public interest. We could take a page from Jamaica and institute a score card, like them, so as to find the requisite fiscal space.
We have to implement the Procurement Regulations. Dr Rowley was right in 2014 when he noted:
“[…] There is a document that comes to this House, on a regular basis, called The Auditor General’s Report which has some of the most disturbing reports… and this Parliament just skirts over it; not discussed—not debated, not ‘nutten’—even when it points out to you that billions or hundreds of millions or even tenders have been improperly accounted for. The House just does not have the time or the inclination to look at it…”
It is a pity that this sorry state continues up today.
Discipline, tolerance, and production are still useful watchwords. Who will lead?