It was the former President of bpTT Norman Christie who once told a meeting of the Energy Chamber that for all of T&T’s resources and potential the major challenge the country faces is its penchant to take things to the edge before it pulls back and does what is necessary.
It is something that has always stuck with me because as I thought of it he was absolutely right about the nature of the country and in many ways it is why we, as a nation, have failed to achieve anything close to our full potential.
Let us look briefly at the changes in government since independence.
The first came in 1986. The country was in crisis. We tried the soft economic landing following the collapse of crude prices and what was then declining oil production. The country was in uproar because the huge spending patterns that led to high inflation matched by high salary increases and declining value for money in public works spending could no longer be sustained.
Our foreign exchange situation had declined and we were on the doorsteps of the IMF. Does this sound familiar? Well the result was the country was told there is a better way that would require sacrifice but would lead to salvation. T&T took a leap of faith and overthrew with PNM and in came the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR).
The NAR was forced to seek a standby arrangement from the International Monetary Fund. It meant that the delayed medicine the country needed had to now be taken in greater quantities. This resulted in cuts in public expenditure as we tried to live within our means.
Some state enterprises were sold, cuts in salaries of public officers, removal of cost of living allowance and some public servants lost their jobs. It was tough and the country could not bare the medicine, fearing it could kill the patient. There was the issue of the NAR as a coalition breaking up which meant the formation of the UNC. Five years after the NAR demolished the PNM, the party of Williams promised a gentler approach from the “wicked” NAR and it worked. T&T swept aside the NAR.
Patrick Manning’s PNM continued austerity and by 1994 the economy was turning around. The country had taken the necessary medicine and to Manning’s credit he was able to revive the energy sector to orchestrate the second boom, this time natural gas, that in some ways had greater longevity than oil and had far more economic spin off than crude. But the country saw a crisis of rising crime and while they could appreciate improved economic performance they agreed with Basdeo Panday that what was the good of being able to make money if you were at risk of losing your lives. The crisis of crime led to change in administration.
In 2001/2002 the country first removed the UNC because, as the late President ANR Robinson said, for moral and spiritual values. He was of course talking about the many allegations of corruption that were levelled against the Basdeo Panday administration, leading the charge was Dr Keith Rowley, in particular the allegations against the Piarco Airport project, the Inncogen deal with the infamous short pants man and the MV Beauport allegations. The country was told that it needed to get rid of the Panday administration because there was a crisis of governance and smell of corruption that if left unchecked would destroy the country.
Fast forward to 2010 and the Kamla Persad-Bissessar administration came to power on the perception of a continued crisis of crime, corruption, re the Udecott scandal, and arrogance.
By 2015 the Keith Rowley administration took office after the country reached the edge with the then UNC administration and felt that it had to pull back before it was too late.
At the time the electorate was told and accepted in large measure that the level of wastage, profligate spending and corruption would bankrupt the country and there was a need for what was then described as good governance.
I say this to point out that whether we are talking about politics or economics the country has only acted when it felt there was a crisis and never when action is needed to avoid a crisis.
How else can you explain the Junior Finance Minister’s castigation of economists like Dr Terrence Farrell and Farrell’s warning of the bitter measures needed to fix the economy?
Dr Farrell is more than capable of defending his positions although I suspect as George Martin said, “A lion doesn’t concern itself with the opinion of a sheep.”
All of us know instinctively that this economy is in deep trouble. PNM/UNC/Independent/non political. We all know that the Finance Minister’s six years of running this economy has not worked.
Today we are seeing a crisis for foreign exchange. If you have a son or daughter studying abroad you know of the hardship you face to pay school fees or send money for them to sustain themselves. If you are a businessman or business woman and have to import things, then you know the crisis of getting foreign exchange. If you are planning to travel out of the country post this pandemic then good luck in getting hard currency from the bank. If you purchase things online for yourself you must have seen the banks limiting your access to forex. Yes there is a crisis that we have been warned about since the Persad-Bissessar administration was in power and we have not dealt with it.
We have to reduce expenditure to live within our own means.
We cannot drink champagne with mauby money. The recent announcement of the government trying to again perform surgery on WASA without fundamental changes and biting the proverbial bullet and sending people home, is an example of us seeking to kick the can down the road. No one wants to see lay off but we are only putting off the inevitable.
We still seem to hope the crisis will not come.
The strategy of hoping oil and gas prices improve and so too production is one that will fail. Yes I know next year the production will get better and prices will likely hold and yet give Minister Imbert, assuming he is still there, an opportunity to crow that things are improving. But that will be at best a temporary relief.
What will we as a country stop moving from crisis to crisis?
When will we take preventative measure and when will we become a real place?