I imagine that every citizen who is conscious of the state of the country’s economy must wonder what magic Finance Minister Colm Imbert will weave when he presents his sixth consecutive budget in a few weeks.
The economy was already battered and bruised by plummeting oil and gas prices and struggling production levels when Covid-19 entered the picture and added to its grimness. The deadly virus savaged economies around the world, bringing many countries to their knees, leaving behind scenes that seem to be apparitions of Armageddon.
Here in Trinidad and Tobago, five years of deficit budgeting, in which expenditure had exceeded revenue that drove the country deeper into debt, signs of a recovery crumbled cruelly in the economic earthquake, causing much moaning, weeping, gnashing of teeth, not to add tens of thousands of outstretched hands seeking food and basic needs for survival.
It is against such a gloomy backdrop that the People’s National Movement won the general election on August 10, leaving me to wonder why anyone would want to run this country in such times. So now, with no respite from the pandemic—if anything, it has grown worse—Minister Imbert must find ways to raise revenues of $50 billion or more, or wield a mean blade to cut billions off the expenditure column of his balance sheet, in order to satisfy the needs of a nation that could be unreasonable in the best of times, or unforgiving when the going gets tough.
I don’t know what the actual revenues collected for the year will be, but common sense tells me they will be substantially below what he estimated in the last budget. Then, nobody could have imagined the Covid-19 pandemic and the shutting down of the country, hell, a global shutdown. Our economy, like so many others, ground to a screeching halt. Revenues from oil and gas companies, those that had not stopped operations before March (many petrochemical plants did), will have fallen precipitously.
No sales so no profits, no salaries so no income tax, and so on, so short. The Treasury will have been way short of cash. On top of that, during the Great Shutdown, the Government borrowed huge sums to pay all public sector employees who were on “lockdown”, as well as fund a number of grants to thousands of other workers, unemployed, poor people and businesses. I shudder to think of what the national debt must look like. It was more than $100 billion at the end of 2019.
Taxi-drivers, doubles vendors, market vendors, some hoteliers and other citizens benefited from the charity. I am sure some “Venes” and other non-nationals passed in the rush.
While we did not vote on it, I am sure the vast majority of citizens and taxpayers had no problem with the Government giving charity or support to people of the country who might have otherwise suffered immensely for lack of funds and lack of food.
I have not even mentioned the cost of mobilising and expanding the health systems in preparation for the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic. I can easily see the Government spending maybe $20 billion more than budgeted for the current fiscal year.
While they must account for every dollar so spent we citizens must join with them in finding ways to repay what is truly a national debt. In fact, Minister Imbert has allowed time for organisations and individuals to make suggestions with respect to the 2020/2021 budget.
We have an opportunity, Government and citizens, to prepare what is truly a budget by everyone, for everyone. This could be one of the great benefits from Covid-19, an opportunity that arises out of a crisis. Here is a chance to practise what has been preached ever since Independence.
In this new milieu the masses must not only shape the instrument that will determine how we make and spend public funds, but also offer us an opportunity to determine where we can make savings and where we must spend money.
In such situations, trade unionists, especially those who represent public sector workers, will easily see that their members, who were participants in the decision-making process cannot, all factors considered, demand increased wages and salaries at this point in time.
Indeed, because trade union leaders will have been part of the process along with their members, they will see the wisdom in steering the country out the perilous waters we have had to navigate over the past year. Also, senior Government officials, business owners and managers will see the workers and the jobless as human beings. And just maybe everybody, ministers, senior public officials, private sector leaders, public sector workers and employees in general, will instinctively improve their productivity in this new social and economic order. Just maybe.
I have always been a dreamer. It is neither a nightmare nor day-mare. It’s possible. Let’s just do the damn thing. (This one is for OB. Thanks for everything, Bro.)