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Raffique Shah


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It's the economy, clowns

By Raffique Shah
June 28, 2015

It is quite an indictment against most if not all of the adult population of this country that focus of attention in this election campaign thus far has been on scandals aplenty that titillate our perverted taste buds.

We are riveted to Jack Warner's nocturnal meanderings that have traversed paper trails involving large sums of money allegedly paid to his former friends in the UNC, and crept into the private lives of the Prime Minister and her friends.

That first telephone call we receive on mornings, "Yuh hear what Jack say last night?" has become a pre-breakfast staple.

And as if to confirm these new parameters of politics, the PM responds, telling us how Jack cried like a baby when she fired him from Cabinet. Or to spice up the platform fare, we have the very principled Ms Anna Deonarine, a Warner co-star of yesterday, worming her way back into the UNC fold.

Is this the level of politics we have accepted? It must be. Because nightly, large numbers of people don their party garbs, leave the comfort of their homes and journey to wherever these clowns are performing.

No politician, not so far as I have heard, has addressed what ought to be one of the most important issues that faces us—the state of the economy.

Yes, the PM and her ministers reel out lists of their accomplishments—houses distributed, increases in social benefits, schools built or repaired, 57,000 jobs created, and so on. And they promise how much more they will share should they be re-elected to power.

But are they telling the people the truth about what lies ahead, what possible cutbacks any government that comes to power will be forced to implement if the economy is to return to growth? Not a word of caution, far less wisdom, coming from their mouths.

I should add that equally, I have not heard Keith Rowley and the PNM address these issues, although I have heard much less of them than the UNC.

Even as we revel in the salacious scandals that seep into the sanctity of our homes, whether we like it or not, the electorate should be doing some mental arithmetic in weighing what's on offer come September 7.

The Partnership Government, between fiscal 2011 and 2015, will have enjoyed revenues totalling $269 billion, and spent approximately $300 billion. In other words, they spent more than they (or we?) earned—which, I should add, is nothing unusual by international standards.

In fact, in the five years leading to the snap election of 2010, the PNM government got some $218 billion in revenues and spent $223 billion, meaning that they too incurred deficits.

The PNM started numerous mega-projects during 2002-2010: all the high-rise office buildings in Port of Spain, as well as the Hyatt, NAPA, etc. They also started work on the interchanges along the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway, massive housing construction (including Las Alturas!), scores of early childhood centres and more.

They completed few. The snap election in 2010 brought the Partnership to power, and they had the pleasure of completing most of these projects, to which they lay claim.

In politics, there is nothing unusual about such cycle: whoever happens to be in office on completion enjoys fruits that may have been planted long before their time.

But these are what an informed electorate should be examining as they determine which way to cast their votes.

More importantly at this juncture is: whither the economy? Put another way, what are the challenges facing the new government post-election?

Central Bank Governor Jwala Rambarran recently joined the chorus of economists and international agencies that have called on Government to effect radical changes if our declining oil-and-gas dependent economy is to rebound.

Specifically, he said, "...The new Government must initiate politically unattractive but durable fiscal reforms within the first two years of coming into office. These...must address reduction of fuel subsidies, duplication...of social programmes, leakages of the VAT...The goal must be to arrest and reverse recurring fiscal deficits..."

Last week, economist Dr Terrence Farrell, who has repeatedly said what Rambarran is now saying, also made a case for "smaller government". He argued that if diversification of the economy is to happen, government must withdraw from many of its historical involvements in state enterprises and related activities.

I should stress that I do not agree with those who argue for the complete removal of fuel subsidies. I think we must develop mechanisms that will allow poorer people to enjoy subsidised cooking gas, electricity and housing, efficient public transport, etc.

The well-to-do and wealthy must pay up.

These are issues that should be dealt with on the campaign trail because whoever takes office on September 8 will have to deal with them head-on.

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