Minister of Planning and Development Camille Robinson-Regis yesterday gave a dire warning to the nation of potentially more socio-economic pressure to come, saying the impending National Budget will impact on the quality of life of all citizens. She admitted the Budget will be a challenging one as citizens will be asked to begin making a contribution to dealing with the sharp decline in government income because of the fall in oil prices.
“We are in perilous times but I know that we are a resilient people. I have complete faith in the people of Trinidad and Tobago, every single citizen, that we will not just rise to this occasion, but we will successfully surmount the challenges currently before us,” Robinson-Regis said at a Pre-Budget public forum on “gender sensitive budgeting”, held by the St Augustine unit of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies.
The forum, held at the Learning Resource Centre at the St Augustine campus of The University of the West Indies was titled: “Budget for Gender Justice: Make households matter to the House.” Organisers said it was aimed at ensuring that women, men, boys and girls have equitable access to opportunities and outcomes needed to advance peace, empowerment, rights and gender justice.
In an interview following her speech, Robinson-Regis told journalists that the Public Sector Investment Programme (PSIP), the government’s overall development programme for the country, will remain at $5 billion - the same as last year. Questioned about allocations in the budget, she said, “the priorities will be maintained. We have said in our vision that there are certain priorities that we have to maintain in order to maintain a certain level of stability and we will maintain our priorities.”
THINGS LOOKING UP
She appealed to those who were criticising government for not taking hard decisions, “to consider the impact of massive retrenchment in the public service, a return of the negative list and curtailment of foreign exchange injections into the economy by the Central Bank. I ask them to imagine the extent of social dislocation that would flow naturally from that and what would be their suggestion to the government to mitigate that.
“I ask those who demand that they be paid all their outstanding monies today to consider the effect of that payment on the sustainability of the very positions they now occupy. I ask those who demand that diversification take place now to help the government to understand how to do that without first putting in place the necessary infrastructure.” She added that the people who insist that the sacrifices should begin with those in government should check when last a government minister got a salary increase.
Despite that she said that things are looking up although the challenges remain and those realities have to be taken in to account. “And as a consequence of that we are not burying our heads in the sand - we are making sure that we address all of the challenges that befall us.”
NO UNION THREAT
In response to questions about the government’s ability to maintain the stability in the face of demands by the trade union movement, the Minister said she believes unions understand the current economic circumstances and will do their part to ensure TT remains stable. “I don’t see any threat from the unions.”
Robinson-Regis said forums like yesterday’s are held too late to have any real impact on the budgeting process because at this time the budget is almost complete and all that remains to be done is to put on the finishing touches. Indeed, one of the repeated complaints from speakers at the forum was the lack of consultation on the shape of the budget, but Robinson-Regis said the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Planning and Development as early as April invited groups to make suggestions for inclusion in the budget and to meet with the ministries for consultations. However, she said that many of the invitees do not respond and if they do respond their responses are late.
HOLD BUDGET EARLIER
Hazel Brown, of the Network for NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of women, an umbrella body for about 100 non-profit organizations advocating women’s and family issues, suggested that the budget should be presented in April or May, giving the country a chance to discuss it and make suggestions for the inclusion of matters that the nation considers vitally important.
Robinson-Regis said that idea did not make sense because there is a mid-year review of the budget which is essentially an amendment. “Which is normal and which is what happens so that would not make any change.” However, Brown said the current budgeting process has to change because it is a very flawed and inefficient process and NGOs such as hers had been advocating that idea for the last ten years, adding that their idea “provides a very effective participatory way of determining what the budget expenditures and income approaches should be, for example, you get an opportunity to talk about this business about land and property tax and all of that so that those things could be incorporated into what the final budget is.”
She said after listening to the comments from the public it would still be up to the government to make the final decision but they would be better informed by the public discussion. Reminded that the budget is subjected to very rigorous examination during the debate in both houses of Parliament, Brown countered that “all of that is political debate. What we are getting in the Parliament is not necessarily objective evaluation of the proposals, what you get is the politics, that is what you get in the debate.”