In the Senate on Tuesday, Independent Senator Dr Rolph Balgobin expressed his concern about the economy. “I think that the economy is in far greater trouble than the general population realises,” he said. He called for a viable new engine of economic growth, to replace the oil/gas industry.
“We have a situation where we are in for an extended period of economic stagnation, and it is probably going to be the 1980s all over again. I don’t know what’s waiting for us at the end of it. What is going to pull us out this time?”
Opposition Senator Dr Lester Henry also complained about the Government’s handling of the economy, at a news briefing at the Office of the Leader of the Opposition last Monday.
Finance Minister, Winston Dookeran, on Wednesday signed an $8 billion loan with the Inter American Development Bank (IDB) to fund this year’s Budget deficit and to hopefully give an impetus to the stagnant economy. He vowed to use some of the funds to finance the Public Sector Investment Programme (PSIP) to stimulate the construction industry which is perhaps the local sector worst hit by the current slump. It gives heart to thousands of laid-off construction workers.
It was a much-needed bit of good news for Mr Dookeran, given the Central Bank’s dour Monetary Policy Report (MPR) released earlier in the week, and the harsh remarks of Central Bank Governor, Ewart Williams.
The report showed a clear fall-off in jobs, spending and loans, coupled with a high rate of headline inflation (although slightly falling), and a high national debt with the use of deficit financing for a third successive Budget.
Growth in GDP this year is expected to be just zero to one percent, said the MPR. Unemployment is 6.7 percent, headline inflation is 13.2 percent, while the year has seen an 18 percent drop in retail sales, and a 6.1 percent fall in private sector credit. The country has a 36.8 percent debt-to-GDP ratio, which is growing year to year.
While private banks sit on $3.3 billion in excess liquidity, no one is yet brave enough to borrow this money which the Central Bank recently tried to make more accessible to consumers and businesses by lowering the repo rate to a record low value.
Another economic bright spot occurred when Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar got a pledge of relief aid to Caricom countries hit by Hurricane Tomas from US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Persad-Bissessar asked countries of the hemisphere to help.
Caribbean nations were also hit hard by the global recession which has seen a drop in their revenues from tourism, foreign investment and remittances.
The Government is very soon likely to face questions in Parliament about their plans for the Unemployment Relief Programme (URP). Last week PNM MP for Laventille West NiLeung Hypolite accused the People’s Partnership Government of reneging on its pre-election promise that no one would lose their jobs at the URP.
Many URP manager and supervisors last week got termination letters from URP programme manager Richard Thomas, but he was chided in a letter from the Ministry’s permanent secretary, Roslyn Khan-Cummings, as having exceeded his powers by firing staff. On Friday in the Lower House, Newsday sent Labour Minister Errol Mc Leod a note to ask if the Government was breaking a promise not to touch the URP. Mc Leod replied in a written note, “The Government has not authorised the dismissal of any worker, nor are URP jobs permanent jobs. Employment at the URP, except public servants so engaged, is on a month-to-month contract for the monthly-paid workers, and rotational for the fortnightly-paid temporary hands”.
All eyes were on the Lower House on Friday, after Newsday on Thursday quoted top Government sources claiming the existence of a spy unit set up by a top member of the former government that amazingly had kept reporting to him, even after he lost office in the May 24 general elections.
The People’s Partnership Government, five months into office, has only just discovered the existence of this shadowy agency, reported Newsday.
The unit, Security Intelligence Agency (SIA), spied on top members of the current Government, the Opposition, Judiciary, media, and civil society.
It was fireworks in the Lower House on Friday when Mrs Persad-Bissessar actually read out a dozen or so names of those public officials targeted by this agency.
She was no-nonsense in an all black outfit with two columns of military-styled buttons, a cut of cloth that hinted at epaulettes, and her hair up in a tight bun.
Persad-Bissessar said she had first suspected wiretapping after Manning told the House in 2008 that he had been monitoring her and someone in the Integrity Commission. She then blamed an MP on the Opposition bench (PNM).
She lamented that public figures were snooped on, even as the spy equipment was not used by the police to rescue kidnap victims.
Her speech was punctuated by ongoing chants of “Shame! Shame!” at the Opposition from Chaguanas West MP Jack Warner.
Among those spied upon were President Richards, the then Chief Justice Sat Sharma, Persad-Bissessar and most of her Cabinet, Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley, Maha Sabha leader Sat Maharaj, Senator Pennelope Beckles, Police Commissioner James Philbert and comedian Rachel Price.
About a dozen top reporters, journalists and editors were also spied on, said the Prime Minister.
Former prime minister Patrick Manning stood to try to reply but Speaker Wade Mark ruled that there is no device by which anyone can reply to a statement such as just made by the Prime Minister.
Manning stayed standing, to the ire of Mark, who threatened to eject him. Much credit is owed to the House’s procedural clerk who smoothly proceeded to read out aloud the next item of business of the order paper and so diffuse the row between Manning and Mark.
Manning soon after held an impromptu media conference at which he denied knowing the details of the activities of the SIA, said that legislation had been due to legitimise the unit, and hit the Government for curbing it as he alleged they had ulterior motives in so doing.
Dr Keith Rowley held a news conference where he firmly distanced the PNM from the actions that occurred under the administration of Manning.
He said no one in the PNM had ever been elected to carry out any vendetta.
“I disassociate the PNM from individual wrongdoing, individual excesses, and wrongdoing on the part of office-holders.” An individual, he said, must be accountable for his own acts.
“And in this matter, the PNM accepts no blame...I made it quite clear before that we have no intention of defending wrongdoing on the part of any individual, so I want to ask you all in treating with this matter, to leave the PNM out of it.”
Rowley said it was painful to see officeholders use State machinery to violate the rights of law-abiding citizens.
“I am a public figure, and I can’t tell you how I feel to know that the prime minister of the Cabinet in which I served, was having information which I consider to be...I can’t tell you how I feel to know I was subjected to that.”
Saying wiretapping is not illegal as it is not banned by any law, Rowley said a future Wiretapping Bill would bring consequences if it is violated.
He vowed to cooperate with the Government on such a Bill, but said Parliament must not only legislate but also actively debate the whole issue through a joint select committee sitting in camera (that is, in private).
Rowley said the issue must not be used for grandstanding or scoring political points, and he expressed concern about what now happens to any secret information from the wiretapping now coming into the possession of the new Government.
Without doubt the talk of the town through most of last week was the reported firing of CNMG talk-show host Fazeer Mohammed. This occurred two days after an interview which saw a clash of opinions between Mohammed and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Suruj Rambachan, as to whether Persad-Bissessar, as a woman, should be leader of this country.
Immediately upon landing at Piarco Airport at 6 am on Thursday on her return from her US trip, Persad-Bissessar fielded reporters’ queries on Mohammed. She denied any attack on media freedom and said Mohammed was being reassigned by CNMG management, but the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) loudly questioned the move, as did the general population for whom, up to Friday at least, no other issue in the country was more important. Dr Amery Browne on Friday in the Lower House alluded that Mohammed had been fired for his religious beliefs.