If Finance Minister Colm Imbert and other ministers have been short on appearances following last week’s Parliament opening, most are mired in Budget planning among other tasks.
Budget prep is going on apace towards expected upcoming delivery date. But simultaneously, the Public Administration and Digital Transformation Ministry is coordinating the alignment of several reshaped and new ministries – from Community Development and Culture to Youth Development.
The People’s National Movement’s second term Budget will be a significant departure from its first in the 2015 term and its General Election manifesto theme “The Way Forward”, will likely have to do double duty for this Budget.
Apart from the immediate COVID problem overhead, Imbert has to cope with a $15 billion “hole” caused by combined COVID-19 and crashing oil prices. That sets the stage for his package, along with public expectations following campaign promises – and little room to continue blaming the Persad-Bissessar People’s Partnership for its situation. The PNM’s been managing T&T for the last five years, boasted of doing a good job and got re-elected on that record (mostly).
Imbert’s April Budget review had, however, admitted fiscal 2020 will be exceptionally difficult even if the pandemic faded in the second half of 2020. COVID-19 hasn’t and that—plus associated costs—also factors into his Budget. It remains ahead if he’ll have to expand help from the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund and borrowings which he said in April would meet expanded fiscal deficit requirements over 2020/2021.
Yesterday, Government sources acknowledged the economy is “in a bad way.” They expect a slew of action to propel it, ranging from infrastructure/construction, housing development, digitisation and other avenues to increase employment and circulate funds. But the COVID climate will ultimately dictate directions.
The Budget may also be sub-themed with Tobago in mind considering Tobago House of Assembly polls are due early 2021. And by-elections are expected in PNM-held corporation seats in Arima, Point Fortin and Diego Martin and a UNC-held Moruga seat to replace corporation officials who are now MPs.
Focus will particularly be on how PNM handles Hindustan/St Mary’s formerly held by UNC Moruga MP Michelle Benjamin. Moruga, with PNM’s negative history over the term, is viewed as an area the party lost sometime back, more than UNC winning it on August 10. However, Hindustan/St Mary’s is regarded as a UNC safe seat.
The PNM doesn’t have to hunt far to understand why its votes dropped in the August 10 General Election: its tenure has been hard for various sectors.
The UNC, retooling to morph into the promised “strongest ever” Opposition will also be doing introspection on the reduction of its election votes. Internal issues and external COVID cloud apart, its votes fell in a scenario where the PNM was perceived to be unpopular, yet won, including the popular vote UNC often obtains.
Yesterday, UNC chairman Peter Kanhai said a team’s being formulated to review UNC’s election campaign. “You cannot go forward unless you look at what was done right or wrong,” he added.
The Opposition’s recent handling of the first bill in Parliament—the Public Health Ordinance—has also given Government the first in a long string of names the PNM will be hurling at the UNC over term. UNC’s handling has also indicated another aspect of its term operation.
The UNC couldn’t have refused support on the bill which was essential to pandemic control. But despite ability to comment on the legislation in Parliament—and supporting it there—UNC members’ subsequent complaint about the bill raised query why their views weren’t ventilated in Parliament to get the appropriate attention/explanation as needed. The party’s complaint raised UNC’s profile but lent to public confusion. Government’s subsequent clarification found opportunity to jam UNC also.
The UNC feint and PNM toss back will likely now be a term staple along with the Opposition’s clearly signalled intent to raise ground voices wherever needed. Whatever their respective plans, both sides should, however, understand how much their jobs as representatives now mean to a COVID-besieged public. Beyond party promotion.