Finance Minister Colm Imbert yesterday told the gathering at the TT Chamber’s post Budget forum, “I didn’t come here to listen to sterile debate or academic discussion.”
Imbert was the main attraction at the debate, a day after he delivered the $50B 2018 Budget in Parliament. The debate was held at the Hyatt Regency in Port of Spain and saw Imbert dismiss almost every criticism sent his was as being out of context. “In Trinidad, we say things, but we don’t know the facts,” Imbert told the audience.
The private sector in particular came in for censure. The Chamber’s former chief executive Catherine Kumar asked why government continues to be so heavily involved in the economy when it should be left to the private sector and government should instead focus on strengthening the institutional framework to allow businesses to take advantage of State incentives.
Imbert retorted: “The incentives are incredible. In agriculture there is every possible incentive yet no one wants to be a farmer. In the private sector, everyone prefers to get government contracts. That’s typical private sector business in Trinidad. They want government to purchase the goods and services they import.”
Government recognises this, which is why it is shifting the paradigm, Imbert said. Economist and Chamber panellist Marla Dukharan suggested reduction or even elimination of incentives as a way to reduce this inherent rent-seeking behaviour (using resources to access economic gain without reciprocating benefits to society) among citizens.
This would as reduce private sector dependency on the government and free the public service to facilitate the sector’s growth. Imbert responded that while her suggestion sounded good, it was not practical. “If government were to pull out of (economic activity), the economy would crash,” Imbert retorted.
He added that the private sector was risk averse and he could only assume it was because of bureaucracy or a lack of certainty in the economy. “I don’t know what more incentives we can add…we have to keep meeting with the (business) chambers to find out why they are so risk averse.
Throughout the entire session, which ran for almost two hours, Imbert was ready to fire back at every question, usually by suggesting people either did not know or did not understand the facts. “Spread the burden” was also a popular refrain. “We raised the price of fuel and we understand that will affect the (man on the street); but we also introduced the royalty to energy companies. That is how we spread the burden,” Imbert said. “Banks make billion dollar profits…spread the burden.”
Imbert added that devaluing the dollar made no sense since that would not solve the problem of forex supply which has drastically reduced since energy revenues plummeted. “It’s easy to say if you devalue the dollar you will balance the economy. If you devalue the dollar all you will do is make us a poorer country,” he said.
Imbert defended government from criticism that it did not cut expenditure, in light of the continuing Budget deficit. “That’s not true. We’ve cut $13 billion since we came into office. Where in the private sector do you know a company that could cut $13 billion and stay in business? Perhaps we are (cutting expenditure) too well because people aren’t feeling it,” he said.
Imbert added that this year was the “year of implementation” for the government. “We are owning up to the chronic problems and asking everybody to share the burden. If we don’t implement what we have said, if we don’t walk the walk instead of ole talk in 2018, we will not survive,” he said.