Imperatives: social equity, diversified economy
By Raffique Shah
May 16, 2010
With one week to go before 'decision day', the two parties contesting the general election are locked in a tight race. Whatever the pollsters may say-I expect some of their findings will be published today-I do not see either the PNM or the People's Partnership (PP) gaining a significant majority that will enable the winner to govern the country comfortably.
Many knowledgeable and experienced people I interact with see the results being as close as 21-20. I think the best either party can hope for is 23 seats. This won't be the landslide the PP hoped for when Prime Minister Patrick Manning declared the snap elections. Manning's close aides are privately cussing him for taking them into an unnecessary battle at a time when Kamla Persad-Bissessar was riding the crest of a wave of popularity.
In contrast, Manning was reviled over his insensitivity to unabated crime and sundry allegations of corruption involving people close to his administration. He correctly gauged this sentiment when he said early in the campaign he was 'the most reviled PM ever'. Still, he was no doubt counting on the PNM's usually well-oiled elections machine to deliver him from his dilemma.
Although the campaign is a short one, it has been brutal and bruising. Personal attacks have been intense, placing the main issues facing the population on the back burner. Last week I dealt with the parties' crime-fighting proposals, none of which seems to hold much hope for a people under siege. Whoever wins the elections must arrest this problem immediately, by whatever means necessary.
A word to big brother Daaga: last week at the PP's meeting in East Dry River, among other explanations he offered for the spate of robberies was endemic poverty in Laventille. While I agree that poverty can lead to desperation, it is not an excuse for crime. He and I and readers know of hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who are dirt-poor, but who never commit crime even to satiate their hunger. We cannot condone violent robberies, burglaries and undisguised barbarism, citing inequity in the society as a reason for such behaviour.
More often than not, Daaga, the victims of such violations are ordinary people who are overworked and underpaid. The wealthy in the society, those whom some might deem 'legitimate targets' because they are part of the problem, are protected by hired security, high walls and responsive police. The poor and the middle classes are the ones who suffer most from the ravages of crime. So please, do not defend the indefensible. Nuff said on that.
The biggest challenges the new administration will face other than crime are poverty reduction and diversifying the economy to allow for sustainable development. On the first, the PNM has already exposed its hand. It is against any increase in the minimum wage from the paltry $9 an hour. That's below $1,500 a month. An increase to, say, $15 an hour (around $2,500 a month), still leaves hard-working people struggling to stay alive.
I have long maintained that if a business, even in the agricultural sector, cannot pay its lowest-ranked labourers $120 a day, then it should close shop and ship out! It is inhuman in today's costly living environment to pay people anything less, although I will also demand that the workers give a fair day's work in return. The excuse that such small wage-increases would ruin many businesses, hence trigger more unemployment, is fallacious. If this society is to be more equitable, to allow no excuses for anti-social behaviour, it must adhere to basic standards that give the poorest among us not just a living wage, but reason to live.
On the economy, both parties accept that while we shall remain dependent on hydrocarbons-based industries for the bulk of our revenues, we need to diversify now since our dwindling oil and gas resources will run dry some day. That may be 15 or 50 years away. It is prudent, however, that we plan and implement strategies now that will allow us to depend less on hydrocarbons. The energy sector currently contributes close to 50 per cent of our overall revenues.
The PNM is convinced that we have much more recoverable oil and gas, hence the party's commitment to expand our heavy-industries. Even if we are fortunate enough to find more oil (Minister Enill hopes for an additional 26,000bpd in another five years-droplets in the oil world), we have fallen far short of the 1tcf of gas a year we need to sustain our existing downstream energy plants.
Manning is fixated on building an industrial island off Otaheite. Should that ever come to fruition, it would be a colossal financial disaster, a debt burden for generations to bear. Any new administration should steer clear of that kind of illusion of prosperity (witness the fall of Dubai), and focus on more practical solutions to developing a sustainable economy.
The PP seems to be convinced that little Trinidad and Tobago can grow enough food to become self-sufficient. The PNM promotes mega-farms as a solution to our food security. Both are wrong. Barring some unforeseen development this critical week, I shall address the agro-option next week.
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