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October 4, 2023
Synod begins
October 4, 2023

Time to Reset

The days and weeks leading up to Budget Day usually produce a litany of demands from various sections of society. There are meetings between the Finance Ministry and groups representing business, labour, and civil society. Another part of the ritual surrounding the budget presentation are the post-budget commentaries immediately following the budget speech, the formal response of the Leader of the Opposition, and the serial presentations by government and opposition parliamentarians.

In the democratic society in which we are fortunate to live, the rituals around the annual Budget are important. Citizens, through their organisations and representatives, have an opportunity to have a say in the allocation of public expenditure, in the level of taxation, and in the level of government borrowing. Pressing concerns, such as access to water, inadequate infrastructure, access to foreign exchange, the quality of education and the treatment of migrant children, can be ventilated. It is an opportunity for the Government to articulate its plans and programmes and, at the same time, for citizens to articulate their frustrations, hopes and desires.

Trinbagonians have long been encouraged to believe that the country is wealthy because of its oil and natural gas and the dynamism and creativity of its people. Yet it is becoming clearer that, if it was ever true, we are no longer as wealthy as we once were. Crude oil production peaked as long ago as 1978, and our natural gas reserves peaked almost 20 years ago. Oil production is down now to a quarter of that peak level, and natural gas production has been declining for the last ten years, now down 25 per cent from its peak. So now, even when oil and gas prices are high, we are earning much less revenue and foreign exchange because hydrocarbon production has been falling. Commendable efforts are being made to find more gas in deeper water offshore and to use Venezuela’s significant gas reserves which are close to us. But these efforts, if successful, will help to keep us more or less where we are now, and we are unlikely to see a return to the days of plenty. As the head of the Energy Chamber said recently: it cannot be business as usual.

In these circumstances, it behooves all of us, government, parliamentary opposition and citizens, to focus on making the best possible use of what we have and to reduce our expectation that it is government alone that can and should solve all our problems. There are of course, certain things that only a government can do, including providing efficient and reliable water supply, electricity, and climate-adapted infrastructure. But equally, our private sector businesses have to look to find ways of earning much more foreign exchange and creating job opportunities outside of the public sector.

The budget is all about money. However, there are many initiatives we can take that will improve the quality of our lives which do not require significant amounts of money. Our educators, in concert with parents, can create a much more disciplined school environment and devise co-curricular and extra-curricular activities which support learning and self-discipline. Our trade unions, in concert with business leaders, can help foster a more productive workplace and a more equitable sharing of the rewards of work. Our parliamentarians, who come together in a spirit of mutual respect to address the problem of crime and criminality, can agree on the temporary sacrifices that we will all have to make if the crime problem is to be brought under control and eventually overcome, and ensure that those who break the law or misconduct themselves in public office are swiftly held to account.

Trinidad and Tobago is at a crossroads. It is time to reset, and we must.

Photo by Jose Antonio Gallego Vázquez on Unsplash