Given the uncertainty of the international economy, the suggestion by business executive Gerry Brooks for a mid-term review of the budget to examine how the economy has done over the last six months is an excellent one. There has been significant movement in oil prices, from US$75 to its present rate of over US$100 per barrel, and an increase, even if marginal, in the average price of natural gas to approximately US$2 above what was budgeted for back in October. Back then, the fiscal deficit measured $7.6 billion, with revenue projections at $47 billion and overall expenditure fixed at $54.6 billion, requiring borrowing from international financial institutions to close the gap. It would serve the country well to know how the revenue stream has flowed over the first six months, given the increased international prices for the economy’s major export and foreign-exchange earners. Perhaps most significant would be information on the public-sector development programme, which is the engine for growth. Has the administration been able to begin the projects, and which projects? Have the financing and the human resources required to get the projects off the ground been found?
Information on these and several other crucial elements of the budget would surely put the national community in a better place to assess how the economy is faring. As suggested by Mr Brooks, one of the absolute necessities at this time for economic growth and a turnaround is for the business community to gain confidence that the economy is on the right track. A mid-term review will tell whether the Government’s economic programme is working, creating the environment in which investors can get involved in new ventures and do so with some measure of assurance. As is often said, this is the age of information, and it is information which will drive decision-making by business executives, not half-statements and enthusiastic projections by ministers devoid of hard reality. A mid-term review will also give the Minister of Finance and his technocrats an opportunity to make assessments and adjustments where necessary during the second half of the budgeted year. There are therefore only benefits to be gained; unless the Finance Minister is fearful that his budgeted programme is in deep trouble and therefore the Government cannot afford the political consequences of such an exposure at this time. The second aspect of Mr Brooks’ observations, regarding the continuing strike at Trinidad Cement Ltd, is one which is related to the above observations on the economy. As is well-known, cement and the general construction sector are central to business expansion, home construction and the upgrade of economic and social infrastructure.
Many projects in the public-sector investment programme are dependent on cement. Only a few weeks ago, Finance Minister Winston Dookeran warned that if the strike continues it could seriously affect the economy. In that context, therefore, an end to the strike at TCL seems the most logical option at this point. The company has made its point and so too have the workers. Under the Industrial Relations Act, the Minister of Labour can intervene to bring an end to the strike and so allow the Industrial Court to decide on the compensation package. As has been reported upon in this newspaper, TCL is in a difficult financial state, with shareholders having not received dividends in seven years. In summary, then, there is little point in the strike’s being allowed to continue. Mr Brooks’ prudent suggestion, taking a wider view and not focusing solely on his own area of interest, demonstrates that this is the way to go—for business executives to become involved in politics in the broadest sense, at the level of making progressive suggestions for economic advance.