The task for the next five years, with a supporting agenda of policy, resources, executing capacity and well aligned action, has to be economic retrieval, recovery, job creation, restructuring, diversification, greening the economy, conserving and enhancing the environment, transforming digitally and technologically advancing with a focus on growth, local production and higher productivity, reduced imports, significant export growth, earning foreign exchange, building confidence and attracting investment. The idea is to build up capacity, make up for lost time, develop resilience and over time, achieve sustainability in the long run. We must not be distracted from that.
Transparency, accountability, honest government and full disclosure remain troubling issues in the society. The relationship between leaders and led is an uneasy one, in political parties and within the country. The role of political parties at election time, and the implications of this for the conduct of government and the quality of governance between elections, is a source of perpetual trauma for thinking people in our society.
The tribal element in the political system which influences political practice and the dominant concern with the cycle of elections, which influences government behaviour, make governing for a nation and pursuing a more desirable future for all, seem difficult in Trinidad and Tobago.
But that is only because successive governments have not had the boldness to try, sincerely and genuinely. Tentative efforts have been made from time to time by different administrations, but eventually leaders and their cabals or financiers, of whatever variety, retreat into their comfort zone and to what they think will work politically for partisan advantage.
Covid-19 has also laid bare the equity/ inequality question, all over the world--within countries and among countries-- and the ability of people and systems to cope with crisis. These include the wide disparities in income, the differences in wealth, the unequal resources and the gaps in capacity due to education, digital access and demographic realities, all present in Trinidad and Tobago.
The equity question, when coupled with disparities aligned to race, and ever present in political support structures, and in governance considerations, linked to electoral outcome, create tensions and become explosive as it threatened to do in the recent general election, and can erupt under conditions of scarcity, hardship, distress and stress, conditions that are with us at the present time.
Covid-19, and its obvious revelations and multiple impacts, gives any country which wishes to address fairness, transparency, honest government and good governance an opportunity to begin the discussion, to discuss the options, and to craft actions to build confidence and trust and to forge a pathway to recovery, economic inclusion, prosperity and peace.
At this time, the government of Trinidad and Tobago cannot afford to be reckless and arbitrary and if this government tries to bluff its way, at this time, this can lead to disastrous consequences. People expect good, responsible government in hard times. They expect superb governance in times of scarcity, stress, and of threat to lives and livelihoods. Justice and fairness will be on people s minds regardless of how they identify themselves in the racial spectrum and or/ the socio- economic configuration.
It is important to be sanguine about how we frame our choices. Part of our problem is lack of ideological clarity and the unwillingness to honestly and transparently address some of our challenges which are obvious but which can cause discomfort and unease.
The dichotomy between austerity and prosperity is patently false.
The concept of sharing the burden, taken in isolation, will lead to overall wealth reduction, if we do not also grow the pie.
The idea of trickle down is only attractive to the rich,not to the poor who have to wait.
The attractiveness of the concept of “creative destruction” to business renewal which it is argued, spurs innovation, must be weighed against the human cost of, business closure, lost jobs and socio economic disruption of families and communities.
Even the father of capitalist economics, wrote two books and contemplated a third which together, would have given a more balanced view of how capitalist economics is supposed to work. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations focused on the importance of self interest in the creation of entrepreneurial energy , business, trade and wealth. But Adam Smith accompanied this thinking with another book entitled
“ Theory of Human Sympathy”, human sympathy being the factor which serves to tame extreme self interest. And Smith contemplated a theory of justice as well, which he never got to write, which would bring greater balance, restraint and humanity to a capitalist order.
Today we appreciate the fact, that the market is a mechanism, not a philosophy, that social welfare measures are part of a humane, caring society and to view such measures as handouts only, is insensitive and callous.
So how do we proceed going forward? It absolutely must be about business retrieval, commercial revitalization and job restoration but also recovery , growth and jobs. We must help businesses to save themselves and to transform but we must also make the economy recover and begin to grow the pie. It is also important to continue to protect the weak and the vulnerable.
Every sector must, therefore, be examined for its possibilities. For instance lease operatorships for independent, local entrepreneurs in the oil industry. And opportunities need to be created for smaller players to monetise stranded gas, notwithstanding big finds by BHP and Touchstone.
There are 17,000 small and medum businesses in T&T. They create a lot of jobs. In fact most of them in T&T. Some have collapsed, unable to cope after the Covid-19 shut down. Ease taxes on this group. We have already created two tax bands. One for Banks, one for businesses and corporations. Why cant we reduce taxes for small businesses to 20 per cent and simultaneously act to bring all of them under the tax net. That will give the hard hit SME sector a break, but will also widen the tax net and increase revenue.
These are two suggestions for economic stimulation, job retention and creation and a more effective taxnet understanding that there will continue to be a prevaccine Covid-19 period, followed by a post vaccine phase but also appreciating that without retrieval, recovery, growth and jobs, we will have nothing.
Dr Bhoendradatt Tewarie