Whatever your thoughts on the outcome of Monday’s vote, a PNM victory will ensure one thing for certain – continuity, at least until the next general election.
A PNM win means a more or less smooth transition into the next parliamentary term. Policies enacted and projects approved over the last five years will continue. The governance agenda will likely remain fundamentally the same, though there will definitely be a shake-up in the Cabinet. Speculation on who goes where is futile until the Prime Minister makes his announcement.
What’s important will be follow-through.
In the short to medium term, the country seems still to be clinging desperately to energy windfalls, although the PNM manifesto has placed some emphasis on agriculture, tourism and technology as platforms for diversification.
Of course, these promises are nothing new – the country has been hearing about diversification for the last 58 years of independence.
TT, like the rest of the world, is bracing for the aftershocks of a global economic downturn that has been exacerbated by the covid19 pandemic. The Heritage and Stabilisation Fund lost five per cent of its value in March when global stocks plummeted, although it managed to recover.
The government also had to withdraw at least $600 million from the fund to stabilise the economy, reeling from the double whammy of covid19 and weak commodity prices.
A key manifesto point for the PNM was e-governance and finally meaningfully transforming the public sector digitally. The public sector is taking baby steps to modernise, with electronic appointment systems at the licensing office and immigration division, and there have been pronouncements that soon, electronic payments will be allowed for government transactions.
The Prime Minister has also boldly promised a Ministry of Technology and Digital Records, as well as equipping each citizen with a unique e-identification number.
Currently, digitising the public sector falls under the Ministry of Public Administration, long thought of as ministerial backwater, its existence often forgotten despite its critical importance to managing public information systems.
Again, until the Prime Minister announces his Cabinet, and outlines a mandate for the new ministry, we aren’t sure how it will work.
We are still fundamentally dependent on oil and gas-sector revenue. And there are promises made over the last five years that are still to be realised – LED lightbulbs for all is just one of many, not to mention stalled mega-projects like the La Brea shipbuilding complex and the tech park at Point Lisas.
The next five years will be challenging – even the Prime Minister acknowledged as much on Monday night. Revenue will be constrained, trade stymied and the borders are still closed to non-nationals – all but obliterating the international tourism and airline industries.
But he was still hopeful that the country will weather any storm and find its way back into sunshine. And the country has a lot going for it – relatively manageable external public debt, foreign reserve covers for at least eight months, the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund and – a point of pride during the campaign – a host of covid19 mitigation strategies that have largely contained the pandemic, including a parallel healthcare system and closed borders. (Although regulations were flouted during election campaigning, so that health officials expect a spike in cases over the coming weeks.)
The problems that the country faces will not magically disappear because a new Parliament will begin. TT’s competitiveness indices remain woefully low for the country that considers itself to be the most advanced in the region – TT is ranked 79 out of 141 in the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Competitiveness Index (GCI) and 105 out of 190 in the 2020 World Bank Ease of Doing Business report.
In an effort to attract more foreign investment and help innovate within its primary industry, tourism, Barbados, which just edges TT in competitiveness, ranking 77 in the GCI, recently announced a plan that got it international attention with its “Welcome Stamp” visa, which will allow remote workers to stay up to a year. Antigua and Barbuda quickly followed suit with a two-year residency option for high-net-worth remote workers. These policies require robust technological capacity – Barbados has an internet penetration rate of 72 per cent, while Antigua’s is 82 per cent, compared to TT’s 55 per cent.
But for a country that created a musical instrument from an old oil drum, real innovation is lacking in TT policy, and hopefully in this new term, the government figures it out.
The government has had the last five years to lay groundwork. Hopefully, this same-but-new administration can start implementing and transforming the country. For the benefit of TT we wish them luck.
Carla Bridglal is Newsday's associate business editor