Speaking at the third instalment of the ‘Conversations with the Prime Minister’ series in St Augustine, Rowley said the greatest challenge he has faced as leader of Government is the level of corruption which permeates society .
His declaration that the corrupt will find “no solace” in his government, comes amid allegations that almost $100 million in fraud was perpetrated against state-owned oil company Petrotrin, by a drilling company whose principal owner is allegedly a friend/financier of the ruling People’s National Movement (PNM) .
On Sunday, Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar announced at a UNC rally, that there was a ‘fake oil’ scandal as she quoted from an internal audit report that questioned the shortfall between oil produced at the company’s leased fields in South Trinidad and what was sold back to Petrotrin. On Monday, the report was leaked online .
Payment for non-existent oil was in the area of $80 million .
“The most difficult challenge I had as Prime Minister is the level of corruption that permeates Trinidad ad Tobago as a society. Persons who engage in corrupt practice.. .
whoever you are, wherever you are, whether you are PNM or not, you will find no solace in this PNM government .
As far as I am concerned, corruption wherever it occurs, anywhere in TT...every person in this country must want to know who is corrupt and must hold them accountable,” Rowley declared .
Turning to the state of the economy, he declared, “You did not elect me to be popular. It is popular politics that got us to where we are today.” In his election campaign, Rowley said, he did not promise, ‘I gone give you this. I gone give you that’ .
“So even if I wanted to conduct public business in the Prime Minister’s office like the last prime minister, the means and the wherewithal are not available for that kind of politics and that kind of leadership.” The current circumstances, he said calls making tough decisions in difficult situations to ensure that the difficult situations are temporary and down the road there will be a brighter future Speaking on a number of issues before opening the floor for discussions, Rowley said he met with members of the labour movement and the first thing they put to him was the issue against wage freeze .
Managing the gap between expenditure and revenue by mass retrenchment, mass lay off and simple reduction of the public service, he said, “is an option which Government has not pursued.” He told labour, he said, that the only employees in Trinidad and Tobago who are under an announced wage freeze are members of Cabinet and Members of Parliament and that there will be no upward increase in their salaries until the economy of the country improves .
While there is no wage freeze announced, he said, “there are circumstantial conditions which even if we want to be generous or overly generous the circumstances would not allow it.” Government is trying to keep some food on the table, keep people in jobs and stretch the country’s ability as far as possible, he said, “to allow moving circumstance from a national budget of $63 billion having lost $20 billion, to see how we can easily bring our expectations and our needs and our consumption down nearer to a level where our revenue is being pitched at, at the moment .
“Those or not environments in which one wins a popularity contest,” he said. To be told by labour that Government was engaged in mass lay-offs, Rowley said, “One of the policies that Government has pursued is as far as we are able to is to maintain as many public sector jobs as possible.” Government’s payroll, he said, is the number one priority for the Minister of Finance. The size of the public service is 89,000, many of whom assume that their pay packet at the end of the month is guaranteed, he said, “because Government has made sure that we move heaven and earth, push around, adjust, borrow and in some instances delay to ensure that people remain at the centre of these adjustments that we are making.” The 89,000 in the public service, he said, include 39,000 civil servants, 5,500 in the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force, another 13,000 of the protective services including 7000 police, 2,000 prison officers, 2000 firemen, 16,000 teachers. In addition there are 22,000 daily paid workers. “We are trying to keep them all in jobs,” he said .
If five, 20 or 100 jobs are lost in this kind of environment, he said, “that in no way should create a national debate about mass lay off and mass retrenchment. There might be some contracts that come to an end and based on priority and needs we may not renew those contracts.”