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The looming challenge

Published: 
Sunday, October 22, 2017

As the protests against some of the measures announced in the 2017-2018 Budget reached to the doorstep of the Minister of Finance on the Divali holiday last week, one could not help but wonder about the personal challenges of serving in public office.

Protesting outside the homes of public officials is not a new phenomenon as this has been done before. However, the deeper story behind this is the expectation of citizens to have their matters addressed by public officials and, if not satisfactorily handled, they go to their homes. Kamla Persad-Bissessar and the late Malcolm Jones faced that challenge and now Colm Imbert joined them.

With the State now being less able to continue funding many entitlement programmes while resorting to unpopular taxation measures to support them, there is a looming challenge.

In 1970, the PNM adopted the Chaguaramas Declaration as a replacement for the People’s Charter as a response to the Black Power uprisings of that year. In presenting the document to the special convention of the PNM that adopted it in November 1970, Eric Williams laid out his vision for what he called “The New Society”.

According to the Chaguaramas Declaration:

“Economically, the goal should be the creation of a national economy, with decisions over the key sectors of the economy being made at home, with widespread popular participation and greater self-reliance by all groups in the economy, with a more equal distribution of income and with a greatly improved employment situation. There will of course still be a lot of trade with the outside world because of the small size of the country.” (p. 41).

This Williams model has guided public officials on all sides of the political divide for nearly five decades (whether they recognized it or not). The expectations created by this philosophy have bred a generation of people who firmly believe that their self-reliance is really state reliance.

The policies pursued by successive governments have all placed the State at the centre of economic activity which has bred a culture of state dependence. In facing those challenges in the 1988-90 period, the NAR government implemented a structural adjustment programme offered by the IMF.

The policies worked insofar as they turned the economy around and saved the country from economic destruction. Those policies did not fit into the core values expressed above in the People’s Charter and the social backlash was severe.

The NAR lost the 1991 general election. The PNM is facing similar challenges today and making every effort to avoid going to the IMF. The 2017-18 budget reflects a mix of free market policies akin to structural adjustment (eg, the proposed deregulation of the maxi-taxi sector) and a retention of state domination in key sectors (eg, continued transfers and subsidies for losing industries).

Can that cocktail avert social unrest? The “visit” to the minister’s home last week requires monitoring. It is time for a wider debate on the way forward and the time to do it is now. The country cannot continue to “kick the can down the road” because the problems have to be faced urgently.

The fear of losing office is always a major political consideration for any incumbent government. History is not kind to economic saviours who failed on the battlefield of electoral politics—like the NAR.

The Chaguaramas Declaration also said this in the paragraph after the one quoted above:

“Production will be carried out by three sectors: the Public Sector; the National Private Sector; and the People’s Sector. Foreign and foreign private capital will be useful adjuncts to meet shortages of resources in the three basic national sectors. The long-run goal is for the Public Sector, the People’s Sector and the National Private Sector combined to dominate the economy.”

Our current challenges demonstrate that this model has failed. We must change course. Can we?