The chickens have come home to roost.
In 2015, with the permanent drop in energy revenues, the country was facing the most acute economic challenge in its history. There was the crying need for structural changes to save a floundering, antiquated, state-driven economy. We needed the most resourceful, creative and courageous administration ever. We got the exact opposite in the government led by Dr Keith Rowley.
They did not even understand the urgency. Rowley left early for leisurely sojourns abroad: four days for a wedding and golfing in Barbados, followed by Miami for five days for more nuptials! I had to ask “Is Rowley serious?” and called for “leadership enlightened enough to understand the requirement of the times and the commitment and cojones to get the job done”.
But they wasted ten years, five in Opposition without diagnosing the problem, and five in government taking no remedial action. We therefore continue to have a disastrously inefficient State-dominated economy, plagued with waste, mismanagement and corruption; our archaic, scandalously inefficient State enterprises sector bleeding the treasury as it has been doing for decades.
No longer with revenue to camouflage our condition, and having almost maxed out borrowing capability while depleting reserves and savings, the Government now acknowledges disaster is upon us. Finance Minister Colm Imbert laments WASA devoured $7.28 billion in financial support over the last three years but struggles to pay its bills. And every year, T&TEC requires over $800 million in support; the inter-island ferry service costs over $400 million in subsidies; PTSC is subsidised with $300 million, TTPost gets financial support of $80 million, and the Solid Waste Management Company costs $115 million. “This nation is sinking with State enterprises,” I warned four years ago. Reckoning has now arrived for Trinidad and Tobago.
The Cabinet has at last accepted WASA is “unwieldy and unproductive”, absurdly overstaffed with 4,803 workers and 426 managers, and spending $468 million in overtime payments between 2016 and 2020. But why did it take Rowley and Imbert six years to wake up?! The scandalous sickness was all over government when they assumed office in 2015. As revealed in Parliament, WASA spent $10 billion in government subventions between 2011 and 2015, but presented no audited financial statements while mains leaked all over the country and several communities were without water.
The Public Transport Service Corporation (PTSC), with no profit in over 52 years, increased its government allocation by 94 per cent, from $149 million in 2010 to $289 million in 2014, whilst revenue decreased by 23 per cent, passengers decreased by 39 per cent but staffing increased by 76 per cent. Salaries accounted for 50 per cent of overall PTSC expenditure, $800 million out of a total $1.7 billion! T&TEC had a massive debt of $8 billion, debt servicing accounting for all its recurrent expenditure, with none for operational expenses, the utility approaching the public utilities ministry for more money!
Yet Rowley and Imbert wasted five precious years without taking remedial action. I repeatedly asked “Why is the government still running buses, airplanes, a vehicle maintenance company and owning almost 50 State enterprises, incurring loss of billions when most of these services could, partially or wholly, be in private hands which, within a competitive environment and regulatory framework, would expand operations, generate employment, pay taxes and greatly improve services? Think of how dynamic our economy would be instead of being suffocated by the heavy presence of the State. Too much government is killing Trinidad and Tobago. Politicians and the bureaucracy are all over the citizenry, stifling potential, creativity and entrepreneurship, but generating debilitating dependency.”
I have repeatedly pointed to our maxi-taxi service as an outstanding example of partial privatisation of public transportation in the ’70s and said, “see what freedom, opportunity and competition can do. Every day maxis move hundreds of thousands of commuters with great efficiency and reliability. A maxi is always available. And the Government does not spend a cent in salaries or maintenance. Instead it earns taxes from operators and the country benefits when people get to their destinations on time. This parcelling-out of the opportunity benefits the small entrepreneur and more people participate actively in the nation’s economy.” This is the structural adjustment the Government needed to make and which they cowardly failed to do.
At the start of sovereignty, State enterprises might have been necessary to satisfy naive ideological aspirations of “controlling the commanding heights of the economy”; to experience the feeling of being in charge of our affairs; and also because there was no alternative, given our fledgling private sector at the time and the State having to keep the economy going. But that model has been long obsolete. Had this Government understood the need to modernise this economy and had they the courage and commitment for the task, we wouldn’t be hearing their pathetic lament today. But after one of their budget presentations, led by Colm Imbert in fake triumph over the country’s economic woes, they wanted to sing, “I can see clearly now the rain has gone,” as they foolishly thumped desks in Parliament.
Well, now the reckoning is here.