Senior economist Dr Vanus James believes Tobago’s economy is in “deep crisis.”
He was commenting on the $4.71 budget estimate, which was presented by Finance and the Economy Secretary Joel Jack on June 22 in the Assembly Legislature, Scarborough.
Speaking to Newsday Tobago, James said: “What the secretary did was to present data that I, as an economist, could look at and tell you that the Tobago economy is in deep crisis.”
He said he could not understand how Jack, in presenting the data, could say “we are doing all right.”
For example, James noted the Tobago GDP fell by six per cent between 2016 and 2018.
“Where that happens in other parts of the world, that is a crisis. But in Tobago he reports it as a minor decline,” he said.
James said Jack should have been honest with Tobagonians.
He said: “I am a Tobagonian and I find that a troubling way for a secretary to talk to the public. This is a crisis. If you are going to budget for a crisis, then you need to give the public the facts of the crisis and budget to deal with that and get us out of the hole we are in.”
The Tobago-born economist contends the budget estimate is not predicated on the fact that the island is in a crisis.
“He (Jack) is predicating the budget on the fact that we are doing okay. But his…figures tell you we are not doing okay.
“So, it doesn’t make any sense to me to go and look at his allocations when he is denying the fact that the economy is in big trouble.”
James continued: “The only way his allocations could make sense is if he recognises the crisis. I am an expert in budgeting and I can tell you, if I have an economy that has fallen by six per cent, my budget will be preoccupied with how I dig us out of the hole of the six per cent before I start to talk about anything going on into the future.”
James said the decline in the economy over the period was caused, in part, by the “crash” on the sea- and airbridge.
“Now, if you know we are in a hole and you are now looking at covid19 on top of that. Covid19 has come and finish off the decline. So now you have to acknowledge to the people that we are in big trouble.”
James said the THA’s practice, over the years, of “adding a lil thing” on the figures for budget estimates, does not confront the crisis.
He observed most of the development budget has been allocated to Cepep, URP and slipper drains.
“That cannot be what you will use to get us out of a crisis. So, you have to acknowledge the crisis and come with things other than Cepep and URP to get us out of that hole. The budget does not reflect that consciousness at all.”
James said the assembly request for $4.71 billion was fanciful and made no sense.
“In this election year, it should be very clear to Joel Jack that it makes no sense to ask for $4.71 billion. Everybody knows. He knows and the government knows and everybody in Tobago knows he would only get about $2.2 billion.”
He added: “There is no chance he would get $4.7 billion because that would be way outside of what the Dispute Resolution Commission (DRC) provided for and this THA government not bothered to fight for any more. So, there is no legal basis on which you could expect to get more.”
James argued the island’s interest could have been better served if the assembly invested their efforts in forecasting the national budget for 2021 and then, from that exercise, estimating the DRC’s possibilities.
“The DRC gives us a range of 4.03 per cent to 6.9 per cent of the national budget. And if you are the friends of the government in Trinidad, you will ask them for the 6.9 per cent if this is an election year.
“But they have been asking for years and up to now they haven’t gotten anything more than the 4.03 (per cent) required by the law.”
James said instead of wasting Tobagonians’ time, Jack should have done a proper analysis of what needs to be done.
Asked if the THA usually consults stakeholders before determining its budget estimates, James said the assembly is not designed to meaningfully take advice.
“What they have been doing and what has been done since the days of Eric Williams to now is that you go around to provide the political pretext that you have been talking to the public.
“But the way the THA is designed, it is a pure executive body. There is no legislature to control how the THA would respond to what the public says.”
James said in order for good governance to prevail, the structure of the THA must change so that the voice of the people in the legislature would govern what the assembly does as an executive council.
“The assembly has not done anything to change that. So, this going around and saying you are talking and then coming every year with the same type of budget just tells you they are not being ingenious. They are being disingenuous.”
James said as a Tobagonian, he is saddened by the current state of affairs.
“I am not watching this through the lens of Mr Jack’s politics but as a Tobagonian who has been living here all my life and has a desire to see Tobago develop.
“And it is very disturbing to see that we, as a people, are watching a government destroy and damaging the economy we are trying to build, and pushing all the way back to 1889.”
He claimed Tobago is more dependent now on Trinidad than it was in 1889.
In 1889,Tobago was combined with Trinidad to form the colony of Trinidad and Tobago.
James claimed Tobago is now six times poorer than Trinidad.
“What I see here is an ineffective government. And I see a government in the THA that does not have the skills or the courage to persuade Trinidad to do what is in our best interest.”