AN appeal for “sensitivity” while much of the nation sacrifices during harsh economic times has been made to the country’s Members of Parliament over their purchases of luxury vehicles that generated some $7 million in tax breaks over the last five years.
Former head of the public service Reginald Dumas issued a plea to “all MPs” to reconsider their needs when it comes to luxury vehicles, for which they can claim hefty tax breaks.
The former diplomat voiced concern as to the message being sent by the country’s leadership at a time when the Government has called on the population to be patient and adopt more austere lifestyles.
“It does not look good,” Dumas said in a phone interview on Friday. He noted several MPs made a number of such purchases within a short time.
He pointed out that the national community was under added strain at this time, including financial stress, and that the “gaps between the haves and have-nots continue to widen”.
The Express on Thursday reported that between 2015 and 2020, Government ministers racked up $7 million in tax exemptions for high-end vehicles, including a Porsche Macan, Ford Mustang 2.3L EcoBoost Coupe and a Mercedes-Benz GLE 450 4Matic purchased by Finance Minister Colm Imbert in May 2015, July 2017 and November 2019, for a total tax exemption of $975,957.
Tough times for everyone
Dumas noted the Prime Minister’s defence of the MPs’ benefits, stating: “But that is not a justification, especially these days.”
And while he agreed that the MPs were entitled, Dumas questioned if there was a need, at this time, to take advantage of such perks.
He said the gloom of the current times, which includes financial uncertainty and the mental stressors of the Covid-19 pandemic, calls for a different approach.
“I think the message being sent to the people of Trinidad and Tobago at this time is not a good one,” Dumas said. “While I won’t suggest that the exemptions be stopped, I would suggest that the recommendations of the SRC be implemented.”
Dumas noted all MPs had utilised the facility and extended his appeal to all leaders.
“It’s on both sides of the fence,” he said.
The Kamla Persad-Bissessar administration rejected a recommendation of the Salaries Review Commission (SRC) to cap the exemption on Customs duties and taxes on vehicles for office holders in 2014.
Acknowledging Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley’s remarks that the perks were also available to some senior public servants, Dumas said he did not, during his tenure, purchase a luxury vehicle and instead shipped to Trinidad a vehicle that he had long bought while in the US.
Further, Dumas said he declined a chauffeur’s allowance afforded to him and “I drove myself”.
“I am making an appeal to all members of the Parliament—show some sensitivity,” Dumas said.
He expressed worry over widening disparities in income within the national community, and said MPs must remember they are “paid by the people”.
“Please look very carefully at the society being created and made worse by the pandemic,” he said. “Look around in an overall way, sit down and say, ‘what is it we want to do’.”
Dumas said the question must be asked as to “how is it we can go about trying to close the gaps, or at least not widen the gaps any further between those who have and those who do not”.
Do you need to?
Dumas appealed to the MPs to ask themselves if they needed to take advantage of that benefit at this time.
Calling on leaders to show some “understanding”, Dumas said: “People are sacrificing and being adversely affected, psychologically, by what is going on. Even if they have a proper income at this time, they are still affected, as the restrictions have caused different types of stresses.”
He added: “People are more inclined to go along with austerity measures if they feel that you’re making some effort to share their pain.”
Dumas said he found it “alarming” that social and economic gaps within the society were increasing and that while $7 million “may not seem like much”, there was a lot the sum could have done for the disadvantaged.
There were children currently unable to access their education due to a lack of basic technology such as laptops and tablets, he said.
Recalling the theme of the 2021 national budget presented by Imbert last Monday, “Resetting the Economy for Growth and Innovation”, Dumas said the statement did not address worsening economic disparities among sectors of society.
“I thought that the budget statement would have addressed, or at least started to address, the structural imbalances in society,” Dumas said, adding: “We have to look at the entire society, but that was not done.”