IN defending himself against a no-confidence motion in the House of Representatives, Finance Minister Colm Imbert on Friday asked the Opposition to plainly state what it would have done differently for Trinidad and Tobago to survive the economic impact of the covid19 pandemic.
He claimed the Government's handling of the economy was so highly regarded that TT continues to get foreign offers for help with financing, after its rapidly-subscribed fund-raising of US$500 million last June.
Imbert began by hitting the former People's Partnership (PP) administration for spending $6 billion in the Government's account at the Central Bank, where it also ran up a $9 billion overdraft, and then spent $15 billion taken from the National Gas Company (NGC).
He complained of $63 billion spent under the PP, even while the world oil price had been collapsing from US$100 to US$40 amid falling volumes of local production of oil and gas. With TT now being a mature province regarding extensive past oil extraction, he said the Government has changed the oil-and-gas regime from the profits-based regime to a volume-based regime, as the former would give a government no revenues when the world oil price is low.
Imbert also replaced the tax breaks given to energy firms by the PP government by a 12.5 per cent royalty on all gas and oil production, recalling bpTT telling the Government the old provisions would have meant bpTT would pay no revenues until 2024.
He boasted that inflation had fallen from eight per cent in 2012 to one per cent today, and food inflation likewise fell from 18 per cent to one per cent, while the Government has kept unemployment at four-five per cent, despite challenges.
Imbert accused the Opposition of not coming to terms with losing the 2015 and 2020 general elections, the latter of which he said the Government won thanks to its covid19 response and economic performance.
He said an article on debt management during covid19 published by the World Economic Forum said experts were advising countries to borrow to stay afloat during the pandemic even as advanced countries now have debt-to-GDP ratios typically of 140 per cent. The IMF fiscal monitor update had advised similar, Imbert added.
"I wonder what the members opposite would have done when faced with the covid shock?" he asked. "Would they have cut expenditure by $20 billion? And retrenched 30,000 public servants?
"Would they have devalued the dollar to 15 to one? From all that they say, I gather these are the prescriptions from the members opposite."
Imbert boasted of the Government's giving hundreds of millions of dollars in social and salary relief, plus $3.5 billion in VAT refunds in the height of the pandemic, made of up $3 billion in bonds (fully tradeable and cashable) and $500 million in cash.
"What would they have done differently?"
Naming local, US and global financiers such as the World Bank and Andean Bank, he related, "We moved with alacrity to access the necessary funding so we ensured people had food on the table during this covid19 pandemic. That was one of the first things this Government did – make sure people did not starve, as has happened in so many developed countries.
"I remember seeing a video of people in Italy – Italy, a developed country – where people were starving because of the covid19 lockdown and because of the fact that it took that country's government a little while to mobilise itself to provide relief to its citizens. But not us!"
In Italy, h said, "They coming with trucks to pick up coffins. That wasn't happening in TT."
He recalled the Government's social support, soft loans to the private sector, concessions to credit unions, $50 million in grants to hotels in Tobago, and funding of a parallel public health sector.
"The parallel health sector is the envy of the world. Envy of the world! There is no other country in the world that was able to create a parallel health sector."
He said it had "a fantastic achievement" for his ministry to mobilise the funds to open the Arima and Point Fortin Hospitals. The Government paid billions of dollars to pay old debts to contractors and to stimulate activity in the construction sector. "We in the Ministry of Finance recognise that we have to keep things going."
Imbert again challenged the Opposition to say what it would have done differently, such as stopping the senior citizens' pension, or social welfare grants.
He said in a pandemic TT had maintained its investment rating at Standard and Poor, and credit rating at Moody's, while all countries in Latin America and the Caribbean were losing theirs.
Imbert said at the international market, TT had raised US$500 million within two hours.
"It was oversubscribed by 100 per cent within one hour."
He said an arranger of finance working for the Government told him, "They said, 'Minister, you don't understand the regard the international community has for TT under this Government.'"
He boasted that under the Government the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund (HSF) had grown from US$5.6 billion to US$5.7 billion.
"So what are they talking about, 'The country bankrupt'?"
Imbert concluded, "I reject this motion."