Interview: Prime Minister Keith Rowley
How will the government invest the $1.5bn from the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund (HSF) during the 2016-17 period?
KEITH ROWLEY: The fund is meant to ensure that we have budgetary provisions for a capital programme, because notwithstanding our revenue restrictions and the necessity to reduce expenditure, the economy requires capital expenditure. The programme largely focuses on expanding and supporting the national infrastructure, thereby sustaining economic growth.
In recent years, some areas in the country have not been able to contribute with their full potential to our economy and we intend to change that. For instance, we will soon improve our road infrastructure in Toco in eastern Trinidad. This area is envisioned to provide a sea transport link to Tobago, fuelling both domestic and international tourism and contributing to the overall economic development of the region. In addition, the tremendous traffic problems in our main urban centres result in losses in productivity and business, as well as high fuel consumption.
As part of our capital programme, we plan to decongest the areas of Chaguanas and Sangre Grande by redeveloping the current road infrastructure. More broadly, as we realised that a rapid rail mass transit system is not affordable in the current revenue environment, we are increasing the public bus fleet and supporting private sector investment by removing the tax burdens on the replacement of “maxi-taxi” vehicles.
What is the government’s policy to encourage a more efficient allocation of the workforce?
ROWLEY: Our labour policy is focusing on redirecting resources towards more attractive employment opportunities. We are launching projects in tourism and agriculture that will have some magnetism for T&T’s workforce, as they generate private sector jobs more attractive than those available in the “make-work” programmes. This will relieve the government’s requirement to allocate major funds into largely unproductive programmes. With respect to tourism, we are currently in advanced discussions with the private sector to increase the stock of rooms available in Tobago. In addition, a request for proposals has been issued to local and international investors for three sites the government owns in Port of Spain, Chaguaramas and Tobago, with high potential for developing tourism infrastructure.
In agriculture, we are examining how wild teak harvesting has been marketed globally. During the colonial period, some teak plantations were established in T&T and these plantations have since been harvested. When the sugar industry ceased in 2003, some of the lands in the Caroni area were identified as suitable for forestry. It is not an industry that we can bring to fruition in one day, but we are planning to set up two nurseries and will begin to create the seedlings during the course of this year. In so doing, we will have the planting material in the next two to three years, and we will more effectively use our make-work programmes for planting in those chosen areas.
Another clear problem in our labour market is that we are short of farmers. The age profile of our farmers is a matter of concern, and we want to encourage young people into commercial farming. Young people have been discouraged by obsolete farming methods, and they need to be shown that it is possible to make a decent living through farming. T&T’s agriculture sector needs to adopt modern techniques, such as undercover farming and hydroponics, in order to show a young investor that commercial farming can be done without sustaining overbearing physical work. Tax incentives are already in place. However, we have learned that these alone are not sufficient to develop an industry. There is money to be made in farming, and this story needs to be told.
How is the government working to promote bilateral trade relations?
ROWLEY: Our domestic market is small and quick to saturate. We are big exporters to the CARICOM market but, although we will continuously support our regional exports, we have to look at ways our natural and human resources can be further combined to supply bigger markets. In addition to the partial scope agreements we already have with some Central American countries like Costa Rica, we aim to pursue further bilateral relations with countries like Panama, Colombia, Chile, Brazil and Mexico. If we can develop bilateral agreements for a small portion of these large markets in just a small range of items, we may build our exporting capacity. In addition, T&T currently has arrangements through CARICOM with interesting markets such as Cuba, and there is a need to grow the scope of such arrangements.
What is the long-term policy for a multi-stakeholder commitment to diversification and sustainable development?
ROWLEY: The only protection I see from frequent policy changes across different administrations is to root policies into the Trinbagonian people. Elections tend to favour frequent government alternations, and it is not inconceivable that such political changes could produce shifts of policy. However, if the policies of any government are fashioned for the active involvement of each sector, then they stand a good chance of surviving “chopping and changing”. We aim to bring the civil society and the private sector organisations into policymaking, hoping that this will by itself provide some element of continuity across future electoral cycles.
We have established a National Tripartite Advisory Council to bring government, business and labour together. Each sector of the country’s economy is required to examine and modernise itself, ease relations and enhance cooperation, with the government encouraging the leadership of each sector to undertake the changes that have to be made to weather the storm T&T is facing. At the government level, the functioning of our public service has to improve and this will be done by removing bureaucratic impediments, government corruption, waste and mismanagement. At the business level, risk taking for a good return needs to be encouraged.
To what extent will development in Tobago be linked to FDI and private sector initiatives?
ROWLEY: Tobago represents a tremendous asset in the hands of those who can fashion a future for the island. To some extent, it’s fortunate that Tobago is at the current level of economic development in the fields of agriculture, industry, tourism, education and health. These five areas make Tobago a diamond in the rough. If managed correctly Tobago can significantly grow not only its economy, but T&T’s as a whole.
In my opinion, decision-making has so far been the single biggest obstacle for the island’s development. It is really irritating to me to encourage the private sector to get involved, put money into the system and stop waiting for the government, to then be told that the public sector has been the major impediment in the form of delayed approvals to viable private sector projects. Tobago should be following proper procurement procedures, while implementing some urgency into the decision-making of public service projects.
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