I am not an economist and so I prefer to listen to and read the views of the experts in that field, who have been dissecting and discussing all aspects of the budget statement presented by the Minister of Finance and the Economy, Senator Larry Howai. We all know that the current minister of Finance has inherited many challenges which must be overcome in order to “stimulate growth and generate prosperity” and many sectors have indicated that Minister Howai is on the right track to getting T&T’s economy in a good and stable condition. Time will tell whether the initiatives implemented will have the desired effect of generating economic growth and returning us to a balanced budget over the medium term. While I appreciate that a national budget must follow a particular format and speak in financial terms about economic policies that drive fiscal initiatives, at the end of the day, the measures must be clearly understood by the man in the street as he will inevitably be most affected by its provisions.
The minister’s admission that it was a deliberate decision to operate this year with a deficit raises the question as to the manner in which this deficit will be serviced. And bearing in mind that this is yet another deficit budget in which we will be spending more than we are earning, what is the state of the servicing of the other deficits from previous budgets? Before embarking on the particular budget being presented, I suggest that a brief account should be given on the actual performance of the economy in the year immediately prior, so that for example, we would be informed whether we incurred a greater or lesser deficit than anticipated for that particular year. I am aware that the budget which is read in Parliament is part of a large package of voluminous documents which may contain the specific information that I have identified, but these documents do not reach the hands of the layman and so an accurate synopsis, spoken in plain and simple language would be of tremendous benefit to those who wish to know our economic progress or regress over the years.
The minister has set realistic timelines in order to achieve stated objectives, but for successful results there must be rigorous monitoring of the processes and systems which will be put in place to facilitate the ambitious and commendable promises made in the budget. From the outset, it must be appreciated that a party manifesto is fundamentally different to an annual budget. While the former is filled with lofty ideals and pie in the sky dreams, the latter must be a true reflection of the state of the economy and the practical fiscal measures that will abate or significantly lessen any haemorrhaging in the system that is adversely affecting the economy. One major bugbear is criminal activity which, despite valiant efforts, has not reduced significantly over the past years. The decision to exempt from custom duties and Value Added Tax, the purchase of CCTV cameras is a laudable measure which involves the citizenry, including the business community, in the fight against crime.
That houses already protected with burglar-proofed gates, high walls and security lights will now be fitted with surveillance equipment speaks volumes to the calypso classic, we Living in Jail. The hope must be, however, that law-abiding citizens would regain control of the situation so that we would not have to resort to the purchase of state-of-the-art equipment in order to protect ourselves. And while I recognise that the minister acknowledges that the crime situation remains “troubling and deeply worrisome,” the trend of low detection rates for serious crimes should also be a source of great concern. If the aim as stated is to reduce violent crime by 50 per cent within the next three years, then equally important should be the introduction of specific strategies to increase the detection rate, which currently hovers around a dismal 15 per cent.
There should be an aggressive and focused drive to increase the detection rate to an average of 65 per cent over the next three years. Admittedly this is a Herculean task, but with the aid of scientific methods, GPS tracking, wireless interception and forensic evidence, it should be easier to identify offenders and secure convictions. Having read the budget presentation, it is clear that the minister is aware of the great responsibility placed on his shoulders to get the economy on a sound footing. My suggestion is that he should stick to the timelines set in his presentation and that he should be given regular progress reports on those matters which call for future implementation such as the regulations for the gaming industry. If this budget fails to deliver the professed promise of economic prosperity, the population will lose further trust and confidence in this government.