Several Cabinet members were upset on Wednesday at the turn of events which have placed the government in a very bad light.
And Thursday’s Cabinet meeting could be fiery as Ministers are visibly shaken by the comments of Minister of Finance Colm Imbert at the IMF Conference on Wednesday at the Hyatt.
At the conference, Imbert said public servants should expect a wage freeze between 2017 and 2020. No sooner had he said so, trade unions were gathering to denounce Imbert and send a message to the Government.
Realising his faux pas, Imbert called a news conference later in the day and said he didn’t say “wage freeze”, but “wage restraint”, and maintained Government will be offering 0,0,0 over the three years.
Then to add fuel to the fire, Imbert said he may raise gas by 15 percent next April because he has not collected enough money as yet, “and because there was no riot”.
Ministers, along with PNM supporters, say these announcements could not have come at a worse time especially with Local Government Elections on November 28 and THA elections early in 2017.
“Is Minister Imbert on a suicide mission? Like the Minister want to get reshuffled?” are just two comments being made.
So far, several trade union leaders have sounded the battle cry and Government can expect rumblings especially as the 0,0,0, announcement was made without consultations.
According to Imbert, “Subsidies and transfers amounted to 50 per cent of Government expenditure and it’s a huge burden on the Treasury, so one of the first things we had to tackle was cut back on subsidies and transfers. We subsidise fuel in Trinidad and Tobago. We subsidise utilities.
“We subsidise electricity and we began immediately to start bringing the price of fuel up to the market. We’re probably the only country in the English-speaking Caribbean where the price of gasoline and the price of diesel is not pegged in some way to the refinery price, the world price for these products,” Imbert said at the International Monetary Fund’s High-Level Caribbean Forum at the Hyatt Regency (Trinidad) in Port of Spain.
He continued, “Since September, in the September 2015 budget I increased the price of fuel by 15 percent. I then realised that was not enough. I came back in April and raised it again by 15 per cent and I came back again just a few weeks ago and raised it by another 15 per cent. They haven’t rioted yet.
“So I might raise it by another 15 per cent in April next year, but I’ve already announced to the population that we’re going to remove all subsidies on petroleum products, over a three-year period. We have absolutely no choice because when the price of oil was US$100 the cost of subsidising fuel reached in one year as high as US$1 billion,” Imbert said.
He added: “I know that is a fantastic sum of money for many Caribbean countries but just imagine that was what Trinidad and Tobago were doing as a way of giving back to the population. Now, we’re being helped at this time by the current low oil prices but I’ve got the subsidy down from that US$1 billion that it was in 2014, down this year to just around US$100 million. So I’ve cut the fuel subsidy by 90 per cent. Of course, I’m being helped by low oil prices, and if oil prices go up significantly, which I wouldn’t hope they do, we will have to do even more drastic adjustments to the subsidy. We intend to eliminate it altogether.”