Extra muscle on state enterprises
Vasant Bharath has joined the ranks of super-ministers with the Prime Minister's decision to add the responsibility of Minister in the Ministry of Finance to his substantive portfolio of Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment.
As one of two new Ministers in the Ministry of Finance, Mr Bharath now has special responsibility for state enterprises.
Going back to Dr Eric Williams, our prime ministers have always singled out one or two members of their cabinet for carrying extra load. In the case of Mr Bharath, the Prime Minister must be pleased enough with his performance to conclude that he is capable of carrying additional duties.
The appointment may not be as onerous as it seems and may actually provide the required connectivity between Investment, for which Minister Bharath has substantive responsibility, and Corporation Sole, a responsibility historically carried by the Minister of Finance as the state's shareholder representative in state enterprises.
The decision to bring in Mr Bharath to assist Finance Minister Larry Howai with state enterprises raises hope that the Government is about to deal with this hugely worrying sector.
Along with the fuel subsidy, the state enterprise sector is one of the knottiest challenges facing every minister of finance. Notorious for inefficiency, lack of transparency, financial waste and high levels of political influence, this is a runaway cat to be belled. But to varying degrees, each administration has failed to secure the public confidence needed for girding their political loins for action.
The result is that every successive administration has ended up saddling the state-enterprise sector with more baggage.
We would like to think that in Larry Howai, Trinidad and Tobago has found a Minister of Finance who understands the critical importance of reining in the politicians' impulse to keep sustaining the unsustainable.
We have known for over 25 years, that we must bite the bullet on the state -enterprise sector. We do not need a new round of studies to tell us which strategic enterprises the state should invest in, and which non-strategic ones should be shut down, divested through the Stock Exchange or sold.
Over the next three months, we expect Ministers Howai and Bharath to put their heads together and tackle this problem. By the time we get to Budget 2012-13, the Minister of Finance should be ready to present the country with an overview of this bloated sector and to detail the Government's proposal for transforming it into a lean and efficient sector that would support the larger goal of economic transformation.
This will not be an easy undertaking, particularly because of the implication for jobs. But if Minister Howai is able to get the tripartite process going and can succeed in investing it with trust, we might be able to begin the process with a minimum of trauma.
Given the current state of relations between the Government and Labour, however, this is, admittedly, a tall order.