Sunday 28th September, 2008

Anand Ramlogan
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Clearin’ track for gouti

In every budget speech, the mantra of the urgent need to diversify the economy has been a popular chant. But instead of diversifying the economy to produce locally that which we import, our economic addiction to the energy sector has only grown stronger.

Finance Minister Karen Nunez-Tesheira boasted that the PNM was responsible for the diversification of the energy sector. Fine, but where was its long-term vision to build an economy that is not subject to the vagaries of the energy sector?

Barack Obama recently said if he was elected president he would seek to stop the United States’ “addiction to oil.” Apart from political instability in the Middle East, its harmful effect on the environment is a major concern worldwide.

The conscience of the world has finally started worrying about the kind of future we are creating for the next generation.

What if concerns for the ozone lead to a shift away from oil and gas? The energy futures market is slowly looking to coal as the future source of energy and China’s huge reserves will come in handy.

Our Government is like a lucky landlord who inherited a building, has never had to sacrifice or work and collects a huge rental income every month. What will happen when the tenants leave? The global super powers are all exploring alternative energy that can service needs in harmony with the environment. Smart oil- and gas-producing nations all have a long-term diversification plan to do their part to preserve the environment and create an economic safety net.

Solar energy

The growth in the non-energy sector continues to be minimal as evidenced by the Government’s continued dependence on our oil and gas reserves to finance the $50 billion budget. Incentives such as production bonuses and production signature bonuses dominate instead of any talk about investment in solar energy.

What’s more, instead of diversifying the economy by creating and investing in income-generating projects, we have egoistical, unnecessary mega projects such as the Brain Lara stadium, the Centre for Performing Arts and the PM’s palace.

The focus on education is welcomed. The Government must be given full marks for its progress with early childhood learning and tertiary level education. Scholarships for PhDs and the Gate programme (the sequel to the UNC’s dollar-for-dollar plan) are good. But how is our economy going to benefit when qualified nationals and the professional class migrate for greener pastures where crime is not consuming the society and public healthcare is better?

The idea that recipients of these scholarships will return because they signed a contract to serve is laughable. The State has never taken legal action to enforce these contracts and people grab the opportunity and run with impunity!

The expenditure on education will, therefore, ironically intensify the brain drain unless the Government focuses on the real issues such as crime, healthcare, high food prices and inflation.

We are spending billions on educating people that will not stick around to contribute anything to our economy unless we address the fundamental problems. In short, “We spending billions simply clearing track for ‘gouti to run up to North America.”

The budget continued the trend of this Government to treat crime as if it were just another problem. The PM barely mentions the word. The Minister of National Security has gone silent since he admitted his plans did not result in sufficient “arrestizes.”

In the meantime, the bodies of youth and taxi drivers pile up as if they are being collected from rubble after a deadly earthquake. Crime is the number one problem and it is not the Government’s number one priority.

Absolutely nothing was said about crime that could inspire hope. No new plans, no new vision. No mention of the debacle involving the permanent appointment of a new commissioner of police. No analysis of why the policies have thus far failed to bear fruit.

Mosquitoes Minister

Health Minister Jerry Narace used the same PNM spin doctor to manipulate statistics and technical definitions to prove that there is no dengue outbreak while doctors across the country are telling sick people otherwise. He seems to be the Minister of Mosquitoes because he’s certainly not representing the humans.

Agriculture is another disappointment. The closure of Caroni created huge opportunities that have been wasted. As food prices continue to soar, our food import bill continues to increase and there is nothing that will reverse this trend. The plots given to ex-Caroni workers are too small to justify economies of scale. Traditional farmers with the experience and expertise need support via access roads and bridges, compensation for flood losses and subsidies. Instead, they are thinking twice about being farmers.

The hike in the price of premium gas is going to have a ripple effect and raise the overall cost of living. It was a mistake to assume that only the “high-end” families own cars that use unleaded gas. The middle class will somehow have to pass on this increase to the other sectors. It will not simply absorb this punch.

The theme for this budget was, “We spend it because we had it.”

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