We shouldn’t let the theatrics of managing Covid-19 camouflage the reality of the last five years.
At the start of their term, I warned this administration that our unprecedented economic, social and institutional challenges make “success in government more critical than at any time in our history”. But after six months, Express columnist Michael Harris found then: “It has been all talk. Foolish talk. No action.” And the Prime Minister himself confessed: “We have not really changed much. And there is a lot to be changed.”
They wasted not just six months but five precious years. They ignored the global energy revolution, permanently reducing oil and gas revenue. It dropped from $19 billion to under $2 billion in 2016. And in 2017, Government’s total revenue was $36.2 billion, the lowest in a decade. This necessitated expenditure reduction and diversification for earning and saving foreign exchange. They did reduce the budget from $63 billion to $50 billion by 2018. But, critically, on diversification, there has been nothing: zero, nada, zilch.
The Prime Minister has been paying lip service to diversification. He has consequently left the nation in dire need of new foreign revenue streams, without which there would be complete collapse. They now promise it in their manifesto. After five wasted years?! Shame!
They produced five consecutive years of economic contraction. Yet they claim they “stabilised” the economy and saved the nation from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But it is our foreign reserves that preserved us. In spite of this administration. They spent far in excess of earnings and borrowings combined, burning our reserves, the nation’s economic security, which dropped 34 per cent since 2015 to US$6.9 billion at the end of 2019. Can we take any more of this prodigality?
Can we forget the festering Petrotrin sin that destroyed 10,000 jobs directly and indirectly, leaving an entire refinery rusting in the Pointe-a-Pierre sun? Every year the nation must now spend US$250 million of scarce foreign exchange to import fuel we once produced. Unforgivable! Can we ignore the ruination visited on our petrochemical sector by the higher gas price the Prime Minister negotiated himself, shutting down seven industrial plants so far?
Mainly for consumption, they raided US$1.2 billion from the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund and borrowed massively, $70 billion in five years, including contingent liabilities, taking the nation’s debt to TT$120 billion in January this year! And the debt grew. To cover the $14.5 billion deficit projected by the mid-year budget review, the finance minister borrowed an additional US$450 million. We are drowning in debt! With nothing to show for it.
Our debt-to-GDP ratio could be around 83 per cent by next year. Alarming. And where is the revenue for debt servicing which must be done with foreign exchange? We are already borrowing to pay interest on existing debt, trapped on the treadmill. This nation is nearer the IMF than the population knows.
And they left our institutions largely dysfunctional. Have we moved a single step to full-time parliamentarians and proper representation? Where is local government reform? What moves have been taken in the public service towards electronic government? Our health service remains shambolic, needing the paradigm shift that comes with national health insurance. Our criminal justice system leaves people languishing in prison for years. Reforms for procurement and campaign finance remain incomplete or not started. Waste, mismanagement and opportunities for corruption abound while national efficiency and productivity decline. Small wonder we languish low in global competitiveness.
And they failed to tackle the spreading swampland of social decay which I highlighted at the start, recommending the Prime Minister establish a special Cabinet sub-committee for social and cultural regeneration. This has become a combustible country, with ominous social unrest recently, bringing conflagration nearer.
The decay is deep. Like a volcano boiling beneath, student hooliganism keeps erupting, harbinger of future adult bloodbaths. Sexual promiscuity, child prostitution and pornography are rampant in schools from where thousands entered the adult world, lacking literacy and numeracy, purposeless and angry. We have an epidemic of teenage pregnancies perpetuating the ever-widening underdevelopment. There is alarming domestic violence with over 10,000 women annually seeking restraining orders and thousands more remaining silent. Thousands of children, traumatised in these violent homes, grow up to be angry adults. Most horrifying is sexual abuse of children. Between 2015 and 2018, a total of 7,764 children between one and 13 years were sexually violated.
This has become an utterly diseased, decaying society, a gigantic womb spawning crime. In the last five years, the annual murders twice exceeded 500 in this country of 1.3 million, surpassing New York City with 8.5 million people and only 289 murders last year. But for the last five years, social decay, the root cause, has been left scandalously unattended.
Our country is teetering on the brink. After tomorrow, there must be no more tinkering and tiptoeing around fundamental problems. The next administration must grasp the nettle with grit, determination, conviction and commitment. We need a mission to save this nation after five wasted years by this administration.