Journalists are storytellers and you often find yourself surprised at the twists and turns that your story can take.
You may begin pursuing a story and by the time you are finished investigating it or writing it, you realise it turned out completely different from what you had initially expected.
Last week when the Business Guardian spent considerable space looking at the work and life of the late Energy Minister Franklin Khan, my colleague Geisha Kowlessar-Alonzo produced two articles, both of which surprised me.
The first was her detail of the history of the Energy Ministry that made me realise many do not survive an entire term in the crucial ministry and that in the last 30 years only the late Barry Barnes and Finbar Ganga did.
The second article was an interview with almost every living former Minister of Energy. What surprised me was how all of them spoke about the tremendous weight they felt on their shoulders being responsible for shepherding the country’s patrimony. For them, it was about ensuring maximum returns to the people of T&T, while managing a sector where the players were a mix of multinational companies, local players, large state companies and the ministry as regulator.
What was even more surprising to me was that all of the ministers saw their roles in similar ways but none talked about encouraging investment and expanding the share size of the energy pie.
Perhaps they all felt that this was a given, but I want to suggest that it is far more a reflection of the T&T national mindset and really shines a spotlight on what I feel is at the crux of at least one major challenge we have in the country, that of the role of government and the private sector.
Two of the country’s greatest economists, both Royalians, the late Lloyd Best and Dr Eric St Cyr in a paper titled “Modelling the economy” argued that the purpose of government spending is not simply to distribute welfare or to generate output, employment and income.
It is, according to Best and St Cyr, to expand the production frontier, to diversify production possibilities and to lift the whole economy to higher levels of viability.
“We have all along suggested that the role for government is dictated more by the spending options available and less by the exercise of any ideological preference or choice.
“Moreover, in the Caribbean case, households must be freed from those historical constraints that have limited constructive involvement in productive life and in business organisation. We need to get behind such aggregates as spending, saving and investment in order to weigh the factors responsible for their level, structure and orientation.
“Here again an enormous amount of work needs to be done to discover reasons for the prevailing lopsidedness in business involvement along lines of race, colour, class etc.”
They are absolutely right and a major error of post-independence T&T is the complete control and huge hand of the state on the economy.
Whether the UNC and its supporters accept it, the way in which the majority citizens view the role of the state is dictated by our historical antecedent, the impact of colonialism and yes slavery, but very much Dr Eric Williams and 30 years of unbroken PNM political dominance.
You see since the 1960s and the call for the control of the commanding heights of the economy, to the point where the PNM got the resources to significantly control those heights of the economy the government has sought to be the provider of sustenance.
I do not feel it is a conscious ideological position, but it is one in which the state has to provide and the private sector is secondary to the way in which the economy operates.
Yes, it is true that often the country’s private sector has failed to raise its hands when it could have done so. How else do you explain that Clico is the only private entity that was prepared to take the major risks of the energy sector and although a lot of water has now flowed below that bridge, they were able, with their partners to build a global business in methanol and ammonia.
As it is with all things in life, if we are not focused on something it is unlikely that we will achieve the level of success we could have, had we focused on the issue.
The truth is if we don’t find it in ourselves to wean ourselves from the government then T&T will find itself in even deeper trouble.
We have to embrace the private sector because it is only this sector that can lead us to a better tomorrow. We have to see that government is there to facilitate the growth of the private sector.
We must encourage entrepreneurship, take measures to make doing business easy. We must not see business, both local and foreign as enemies of the people.
No one is saying to give away the patrimony, what I am arguing for is a laser-like focus on growing the economy, through encouraging, facilitating and promoting investment in the country.
It is a call for a clear recognition that this paralysis of hoping and waiting for strong energy prices is doomed to failure.
As a country, we have to accept that people are in business to make money. We have to accept that companies have a responsibility to their shareholders to maximise profits and that they must make an adequate return on their investment.
Whether a company is in the start-up, growth, or mature phase of its lifecycle, it is not the government’s role to say they have made enough money and therefore seeking to maximise its profits is somehow wrong or unconscionable.
It is this reliance on the government that makes people feel it is okay to never pay taxes on income, use all the public goods for free, and when you get to 65 collect a grant from the State.
How is it okay that citizens dread having to go to the public hospitals and it is common that patients will spend days in the A&E while waiting for a bed on the wards, having waited hours to be seen in the first place?
It is because we feel the government should pay for healthcare and will not embrace real change in the system that leads to a national health insurance system where we pay our fair share and not fool ourselves into believing that a nominal health surcharge should allow us to have quality healthcare.
Many citizens have health insurance plans with the private sector. Is there no way to ensure that a private sector model is applied to the hospitals?
What of pension reform? Surely, just like many private enterprises, state workers should be contributing to a pension plan which they can take with them wherever they go and where the benefits are also reflective of the level of contribution?
Just think about government operations and how we would be better off if many things were privatised? We recognised that things like security, maintenance, cleaning should not be done by the government and what do we do? We form a state company to do it.
T&T remains one of the 40 richest countries in the world. Just think about that. The energy sector has over the years generated tremendous wealth for us.
As I conclude I return to the observation of Best and St Cyr, who were looking at the role of the offshore economy (propelled by oil, gas, petrochemical) and the inshore economy, which is fuelled by the rents from the offshore economy.
They wrote, “The Point Lisas strategy of expanding upstream and downstream into the energy value chain continues to be official policy. Not only does this latter strategy of resource based industrialisation reinforce lop-sided growth; it actually militates against transformation.
“We are of the view that without tackling headlong and simultaneously the twin goals of production/supply enhancement and income equalisation, this strategy is likely once again to frustrate transformation onshore. This is so because of the very nature of the externally propelled economy.
“Growth offshore tends to stimulate mainly satellite activity onshore. Such onshore growth cannot sustain itself and must falter when the offshore sector wanes and foreign exchange dries up.”
We are at that place again.