“I came back into the country on Saturday, retired as CEO of First Citizens Bank on Sunday and was sworn in as a minister this morning. And within the space of two days, every minister in this Government has come to me with projects that are high priority to them,” Howai revealed to Newsday yesterday.
With a smile playing across his face, the well-spoken freshly minted minister and Senator was asked if he is now the most popular minister in the People’s Partnership owing to the fact that he has responsibility for the nation’s public purse, he replied, “Yes. It seems everybody knows me!”
In a one-on-one interview with Newsday outside the Parliamentary Chamber during the Senate sitting yesterday afternoon, Howai said he would not be rushed into allocating money or approving spending on projects without first being properly briefed on the economy and the situation within his ministry.
“New and old ministers have approached me, but I need to put all of their requests into context and then prioritise how I will be spending. I want to be careful that I don’t just respond to who asks the loudest or the sweetest, but rather, I will respond to where the priority is. So I need to be briefed properly before I can proceed,” Minister Howai said.
Howai was clearly the man of the moment among his Cabinet and Government colleagues yesterday during a swearing-in ceremony of new Government Senators at Knowsley in Port-of- Spain. He was seen in an animated discussion with new National Security Minister Jack Warner, whose ministry got a billion-plus bite of the National Budget pie in 2011. So what is Minister Howai’s priorities as the man in charge of guiding Trinidad and Tobago’s economy through current challenges? “The economy as a whole is my priority,” Howai stated. “But before I set any specific goals, I’d like to get a full overview of the economy and what is happening.
Get the facts and the data from my predecessor Winston Dookeran and my Permanent Secretary, which would allow me to start to make rational choices about how we move forward.
“I also need to get a good sense of the fiscal position of the country. Are we on target, are we on budget for this year, are we slightly off or are we going to do better than expected?
“Once I have an understanding of these things, then I can prioritise properly.”
Although Howai was appointed chairman of two high-profile State Boards; the National Gas Company (NGC) and he National Energy Corporation (NEC), by the PP while retaining his substantive post as chief executive of State-owned First Citizens bank, a post he had held since 1997, he is not affiliated to any political party let alone those in the coalition which holds the reigns of power.
Asked if he intends to join one of the coalition partners, having been appointed a Government minister, Howai said his allegiance has been and remains with the Partnership. “My loyalties lie with the People’s Partnership and I think Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar prefers that we stick with the Partnership, as opposed to identifying specific political allegiances, so I would prefer to stay that way for the time being.”
Persad-Bissessar shared Howai’s sentiment saying that in asking Howai if he would be willing to serve his country further, in the realm of a Cabinet position, she did not ask him to join the United National Congress (UNC) of which she is the political leader. Howai is the only non-political appointee out of the four new Senators including Jamal Mohammed (COP), Marlene Coudray (UNC) and Ganga Singh (COP). Asked of her expectations for Howai, she said, “We need to do more to kick-start the economy.”
She thanked former Finance Minister and new Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Dookeran for stabilising the economy and now expects Howai, with his vast experience in finance and banking to start the local economy.
She said while former finance minister Winston Dookeran was able to stabilise the economy, Howai with his “wealth of experience in banking” would be able to get the economy going. Asked what specific targets she had given Howai, Persad-Bissessar said she expects he would soon meet with his ministry’s technocrats.
“My target for him will not be five dollars or ten dollars. The target would be that we diversify the economy,” she said.