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Former Prime Minister the late Patrick Manning.

Curtis Williams

The late Prime Minister Patrick Manning challenged us as a country, as a society, to dare to think that by 2020, we could become a first-world country.

Part of the challenge involved the modernisation of our economy, our society, and all of the services we provide.

The Vision 2020 document was built on five pillars: competitive business environment; innovative people; caring society; effective governance; sound infrastructure; and environment.

Its crafting involved many of the top minds and leaders in the country. Vision 2020 was meant, at least initially, to be bipartisan and had as its cornerstone the modernisation of everything from energy to national security.

Manning himself did not achieve some of his own targets, especially on the issue of inflation that led to the overheating of the economy and made home-ownership in particular, out of the reach of the working class. But at least he had a vision, a call to action, a pathway that asked us to dream of moving out of this third world, plantation economy with poor infrastructure, failing state enterprises, insecurity and unsustainable spending.

It was recognised that to get there required a growth rate that exceeded inflation and that structural reforms, including the linking of the energy sector to manufacturing, were necessary.

Ten days ago, Finance Minister Colm Imbert presented the 2022 Mid-Year Review and did a number of things.

He told the country that things were looking a lot better than it did when he presented the 2022 Budget last October.

Revenue was significantly up, buoyed by the higher receipts from the energy sector, with higher revenue and more economic activity that flowed from the opening up of the economy post-COVID-19 lockdowns.

The Finance Minister was pleased that he did not borrow any money to meet Government expenditure since the start of the year. In fact, he was now in a position to predict that he was unlikely to need to borrow for the rest of the financial year, as energy prices were likely to remain good for the next four months of the fiscal year.

Higher revenue meant that the Government could pay some of its bills, bills like its effective loan of withholding VAT refunds to businesses. Imagine the Minister of Finance has the temerity to suggest that he was providing an impetus to businesses by repaying them their own money, which he effectively borrowed and which is never registered on the books as government debt.

Beyond that, the revenue generation meant that some had to go to the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund. Imbert and the Government took the opportunity to pat themselves on the back for adhering to the law.

What the Minister of Finance did not do was to account to the people of T&T on the performance of the economy outside of the windfall, and for which he has no control and can take no credit.

You see, we all know that the prices of commodities are not sustainable and will go down within the next 12 to 18 months. So, while the country must be happy and make the best use of the windfall, it is not sustainable, and in any case, T&T must fix the structural problems that afflict the economy or we just will not do well as a country.

If one had the patience to look at the entirety of the debate, one would feel as if our MPs had experienced a state of malkadee. It is as if the need to account for the measures in the budget was not important and the requirement to chart a vision for the future not necessary.

Imagine the Minister of Energy spends much of his time making the straw man argument that someone was trying to traduce him by calling out his attempt, to at best palter, when he did his interview with CNN’s Richard Quest.

What one might have hoped from the Minister, a defence that perhaps suggested that should the political and economic isolation of Venezuela end, it is conceivable that there could be a path to both cross-border and across-border gas with the ability to produce all of the 10 tcf in Loran/Manatee and get another 500 million standard cubic feet per day from gas being flared offshore Venezuela.

He could perhaps have talked about the BHP project and the plans to bring it to market, or the potential of the new deep-water blocks on offer, or the plans to launch the on-land bid round, and the success of Touchstone inspiring interest in more on-land exploration. But it is nothing but malkadee and hubris that allow him to focus on the messenger and not the message.

We should have heard of the digitisation plans and public sector reform that will see the modernising of a technology-driven public service and one where the State can legitimately afford to pay people proper salaries while it retrains and prepares those workers who will have to find alternative careers for life in the private sector.

Neither the ruling party nor the Opposition seemed to think that the focus must be on the government easing itself out of the high levels of transfers and subsidies and focusing on protecting the most vulnerable.

The Minister of Finance was right to raise the issue of the amount of money spent on the Senior Citizen Grant and must put a plan in place to ensure that in the next 15 to 20 years, the grant is not the burden it threatens to be and that contributory pensions plans must be the order of the day.

It cannot be good enough to live a life where you never pay taxes or NIS and get rewarded for living to 65. Just to be clear, my mother receives a portion of that grant, as she also receives her NIS arrangements, and I am happy for her and all others. In fact, the argument I make here will effectively preclude me from such a grant should I live to 65. But we must seek what is in the best interest of the country.

The Opposition never raises the issue of the rate of investment in this economy which, as a component of aggregate demand, investment is important, because of its ability to influence the productive capacity of the economy and thereby boost economic growth.

The acceptance of the state of the roads, the 12-year Point Fortin Highway project, the hundreds of murders, the crassness of the politics, the ability of the Prime Minister to be nearly conned with no one asking about the absurdity of him trying to reach the UN Secretary-General on his mobile phone, with no one to take notes and listening in on the call, all reek of a third-world society.

How else do you accept the politics of the day when we make a political football of the deep wounds inflicted on children and the passing of the buck on who saw or did not see the Robert Sabga report? The issue is why nothing has been done about the report.

What we are now in uproar about is not just the failure of the State to act, it is that our attention has again been turned to the failure of institutions. In a couple of weeks we will get over it, just as we got over the Scott Drug Report, just as we got over the report into T&TEC that never envisioned a national blackout, just as we got over the report into East Port-of-Spain.

We accept that it is okay for Port-of-Spain to flood every rainy season, we accept that water will not be available to us 24/7, we accept that the police will have a detection rate of 15 per cent at best and we accept that justice must happen at snail’s pace. We accept being third world.