Tuesday, February 20, 2018

New oil, old habits

There is justifiable dismay from the hype surrounding the announcement of a new oil find. There we had the Prime Minister, Ministers and high officials all posing, preening and celebrating as though salvation had come. "God is a Trini'' declared the Lady, using that very trite and irresponsible saying when seriousness was the better option. Doesn't our leader know this silly sentence is indicative of the absurdity in this country that despite being wasteful, spendthrift, destructive and unprepared, we would always be saved by a God who loves us above all else. If this is going to be her approach, can we trust her promise not to squander any new money?

Besides, should a leader of a nation facing problems like ours and getting a promise of some reprieve, be so flippant, displaying no comprehension of the demands of the moment? Instead of encouraging sobriety, the PM is raising euphoria by promising "better times'' with an oil find whose yield may not deliver the financial abundance hoped for. But abundance or not, given our previous management of booms and windfalls, it behoves our Prime Minister to be discreet and not raise expectations that the good times will soon roll again.

Indeed they should not. Now is still a time for sacrifice, saving and managed expenditure based on priorities geared towards the structural changes needed for sustainable growth. Instead, what we immediately got from the gushing Prime Minister is the usual adhocracy and loose talk about the new money being spent on "people-centred development'', that worn-out generality that avoids precision and which politicians employ as a licence to spend on anything under the sun.

We can therefore now expect Glen Ramadharsingh, pockets bulging with bullion, running hither and thither, sprinkling money in every corner to gain publicity by relieving individual stress; but with no strategic intervention to alleviate poverty and wean people away from the dependence on the state. Not one word from the Prime Minister about economic diversification or the Heritage and Stablisation Fund or deficit reduction. She should have simply thanked God and kept quiet.

The Government is understandably hungry for good things to trumpet. There is nothing developmental happening but the highway to Point Fortin, decades in gestation and brought to execution point by the last administration. With neither vision nor strategic plan towards a defined destination, the administration pathetically inches around, merely tinkering, majoring in minors, but big on boasts that have no basis in reality. It is the problem with politicians who don't do their homework, who aspire to office for glamour and gain and whose mantra of serving the people is just empty sloganeering.

This is the kind of administration whose main criteria for spending the patrimony is its own aggrandisement. The evidence is already here. Driven by selfish ends, the wasteful spending has started without having earned a red cent from the new discovery. See the full page ads by Petrotrin in the three dailies, running for days. This is absolutely unnecessary expenditure.

The country became more than fully aware of the oil find through the high level announcement, involving the Prime Minister herself and which received headline coverage in all the media. Why then this waste? Doesn't Petrotrin have burdensome debt? It is clear that the ads are not for the benefit of the nation but for the glorification of those whose photographs appear in them. How can we be persuaded by talk of discretion when they have started so unthinkingly?

This country should no longer tolerate such slackness. We have been burnt too many times before. The entire budget of Norway is today financed by investment earnings from its savings of energy revenues. But we spent everything, and saved only when it was imposed on us. We received "spectacular wealth'' from the oil boom of the 1970s, but it flowed through the country "like a dose of salts'' and we ended up in the hands of the IMF in the 80s with the government having to arbitrarily cut public sector wages by ten percent. And after the recent gas boom, our plight was negative growth, deficit spending and inadequate savings.

So watch them, people. Keep your eyes on the Cabinet and Petrotrin. Like its predecessor, this administration has already displayed enormous talent for excess. Forget political allegiance. Independent thinking is required. The children's future is involved.

And watch for the sharks, within and beyond our waters. They are undoubtedly already circling with talk of an oil boom and gorging opportunities promised by the Prime Minister's looseness. Expect more feting of the PM and selected ministers, especially the very influential cabal, some of whom are undoubtedly anxious for such increased attention. Backroom deals are already incubating. All want very big pieces of the action.

Poor Trinbago. So little to protect the patrimony. When Team Unity stood up against corruption in 2001, we were branded "neemakharams'' by the majority tribal elements of the UNC, and all, except one, lost our deposits in the ensuing election. But, as proven by charges later laid, we were justified in our stand. It took the UNC nine years to regain office and only after it got into a coalition with four other parties.

There is a lesson here for all parties. Deal with malfeasance. The PNM fell in 2010, as it did in 1986, because it failed to face the justified perceptions of corruption and squandermania. Today the country is again buzzing with talk of a new "feeding frenzy''. The government must act or face the consequences. And most importantly, we the people must ensure that new oil is not derailed by old habits.

Ralph Maraj is a former

government minister