For 44 minutes, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley held court on prime time television on Sunday night.
The country was glued to their television sets to hear Rowley’s plans for 2018. At the end of it, all Rowley promised was HOPE – hope to keep crime down, hope for the economy to improve, and hope that the energy sector will rebound.
The Prime Minister started off his lengthy address on crime.
Rowley called on the nation to spare a thought or prayer for individuals and families who have become victims of crime. He now realized that the criminals elements were making this country a living hell, as the country faces record killings.
Rowley said the New Year started off with reports of the continued murderous scourge in the country, as the pain of families who lost their loved ones at the hand of the criminals elements “is our pain.”
He urged citizens to keep hope alive in the fight against career violent criminals.
Last year, Rowley said the Police Service, through its efforts, was able to confiscate 1,064 firearms and 1,800 rounds of ammunition while over 12,000 people arrested “yet we face almost record killings. We must, and we will, win this war on crime.”
Rowley said new approaches were at work in the SSA and new energy which were beginning to infect the ranks of the TTPS, “as we have been seeing improvements in their response and directions”, noting though that many huge negatives still exist.
He added, “We need to increase speed on all fronts so that we can get to that destination of safety and security which the population deserves. With appropriate leadership and effective actions all around, from the home to the Parliament, from the school yard to the police station, we will overcome the violent few who are determined to make hell out of this paradise which we all have inherited as our homeland.”
Rowley admitted that if the Government had not managed the economy prudently and made the necessary adjustments, the country would have been a more “arid and barren land.”
He added, “I wish to make it clear that I am fully aware of the impact of expenditure cuts on the macro and micro economy and the effect of these cuts on people. We know that it’s tough on everyone but there are few better or painless options. We just have to take our medicine and work hard towards the cure that we are confident can be had.”
He said Government also has the responsibility to take into account how much society could bear.
“And that is why we have decided to use some of our fiscal buffers, such as the Heritage and Stabilization Fund, for the purpose they were intended, and to spread out the adjustment over a period of time.”
Rowley spoke about the effects falling oil and gas prices have on the economy.
He said this was compounded as “overdrafts and available accounts in the Central Bank and the $16 billion investments retention at NGC had been used up, while the Green Fund had been mortgage and contractors’ debts were at an all time high.”
Rowley said the Government had to make tough and difficult decisions for our economic survival.
Prior to 2015, the PM said the previous Government had spent $7 billion per year subsidizing the cost of gasoline and diesel which had to be cut due to scarce funding.
This led to Government embarking on a fiscal consolidation programme to stabilize the economy and to control Government’s spending which had gone out of control when they assumed office, as this country’s debt had increased by 70 per cent over 2010 to 2015 from $45 billion to $76 billion.
Between 2015 and 2017, Rowley said Government expenditure had been cut by 20 per cent which resulted in a significant knock-on effect on economic growth in the non-energy sector and led to delays in making payments to contractors and suppliers.
Two measures Government had to take were a seven per cent public expenditure cut and the removal of the fuel subsidies.
Rowley stated, “I hope that consumers are not being exploited when maxi taxi owners continue to enjoy waivers from VAT, import duties and motor vehicle taxes on the purchase of their vehicles.What is not acceptable is that some maxi-taxi operators, using low-priced CNG, have increased their fares in step with diesel powered maxis, even though the price of CNG has not been increased.”
On the revenue side, Rowley said his Government took steps to restore the Value Added Tax which had been severely undermined in 2012 when 7,000 non-essential items were exempted from VAT, for purely political reasons.
“We reduced the rate from 15 per cent to 12.5 per cent to soften the impact on consumers.”
He said Government met its budget financing commitments with the aid for some one-off revenues in the form of extraordinary dividends from state enterprises, asset sales, the first ever draw down from the Heritage and Stabilization Fund and relied upon the proceeds of a US$1 billion international bond placement.
Rowley said Government had to announce a range of revenues measures among them the implementation of new and taxes.
Last year, plans were also put in place to implement the property tax which Rowley said was now faced with legal challenges, while there was a proposal to revise gambling and gaming tax legislation which was held up in a Joint Select Committee of Parliament.
The Government expects to make progress on these two items in 2018, Rowley said, including the introduction of the Revenue Authority of T&T.
“With our careful and measured approach, we have managed to keep our head above water and have the country running without social and economic chaos. I want to assure you, however, that in making these expenditure cuts, your Government has sought as far as possible to focus on cutting out waste and inefficiency, maintaining a balance and protecting the most vulnerable and preserving jobs.”
He said they have also declared war on corruption in the public sector.
“We have made significant progress in identifying white collar criminals and are tracking and holding to account individuals and entities that made fast and loose with public monies.A few of them are already on their way to the courthouse to answer for their dastardly actions.”
In April 2017, Rowley said the international rating agencies, Moody’s and Standards and Poor’s each downgraded T&T by one notch.
Despite Government’s significant decline in revenue they were able to pay billions of dollars in back pay arrears to public servants in the last two years.
These payments, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley said last night was never mentioned by the union movement, even as union leaders promised a tsunami of protests this year against the Government who have been retrenching public servants due to financial constraints.
Rowley explained that with the sharp drop in revenue, the Government was unable to immediately meet all the arrears of back-pay for Public Servants, left by the previous administration.
“Part of the expenditure splurge in 2014/2015 reflected a 14 per cent wage increase to public servants, which created an obligation for back pay, which was initially promised to be paid before the end of fiscal 2015.”
However, he said the Government managed to negotiate a solution with the relevant unions and have paid the billions of dollars over a two-year period.
DR KEITH ROWLEY ON SUNDAY NIGHT