RESPONSE TO THE 2020 BUDGET SPEECH, by THE POLITICAL LEADER, GREEN PARTY OF TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO, DR. EVEROLD HOSEIN
The 2020 Budget Speech is So So – Same Old, Same Old. With little vision or imagination on how to provide impetus for a fantastic Trinidad and Tobago. And I suspect the UNC would have provided a similar So So budget.
EDUCATION Let’s begin with the most crucial and important development sector: Education. One grants the government some credit for recognising this importance by allocating some 10 % of the budget (around $5 billion, as per the Draft Estimates of Expenditure for the Year 2020) towards Education, one of the highest allocations in the budget. But though it is one of the highest allocations, the Budget Speech itself spends less than 1 percent of its content on Education, the most vital, the most critical sector with regard to the future of Trinidad and Tobago. And that 10 percent ( about 2 pages out of 154 pages) are filled with bromides and platitudes and worn-out clichés. One wonders, as a consequence, how well we will spend this $5 billion.
When we examine the 28 lines of the speech devoted to Education, we see sentences which mean nothing. E.g. “Education is increasing in quality at all levels with programmes becoming relevant and responsible to meet sustainable and national development goals.” What pray tell does this mean? Our primary schools, the foundation of the education system, is still focused on teaching to the test, training children to pass examinations. It pays lip service to character development, and to physical activity, and the arts and culture. Primary schools are still judged by number of passes in the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) examination.
We do not need standardised examinations for 11 year-old children. Let’s follow the Finnish model, one of the best education systems in the world, and do away with these exams which simply are traumatic for most school children.
Another example of So So: “We are also focusing on infrastructure. We are increasing the maintenance budget given the poor quality of some primary and secondary school buildings.” Most primary schools are poor quality, with no air-conditioning, poor classroom facilities, no sound-proof separation between classrooms, unsatisfactory toilets, among other deficiencies. And then we hear the following: “We are reforming the infrastructure procurement processes so that they could yield greater efficiency gains.” What does that mean? Dr. Eric Williams would not have tolerated this kind of meaningless phrasing.
And another lovely line: “We are also in the final stages of rolling out a comprehensive billion-dollar package of construction work designed to complete and commission twenty seven (27) priority schools in the shortest possible time.” So one asks: What are priority schools? And what is the shortest possible time? Just before the next general election?
We need 160 totally new, properly-equipped, air-conditioned primary schools for all our primary school children with these schools including day care for children 9 months and older. Our current education system for children up to age 12 in one of the richest countries in the region cannot be described as affording a quality education for our youngest. So what are we really up to with the expenditure of $5 billion, half of which one understands is for staff.
And one more nonsense-phrase which has no meaning: “Educational opportunities can be easily accessed by the full spectrum of learners with educational support services necessary to optimize the teaching and learning process.” But it has a nice ring to it…even if the meaning is obscure.
HEALTH The next big budget allocation is to the Health Sector, another roughly $5 billion, another near 10 % of the budget. But here is a nice difference compared to how the Education sector was treated. In the Budget speech, the Health sector got 7 pages of out of 154 pages, about a 4 % of the budget speech content, compared to 1% for the Education sector. This is at least 3 times more space than was devoted to Education, though Education got more of the budget! Somewhat odd.
But it pains to read the content of the Health sector’s 7 pages. It is almost all about eye-candy, physical stuff (“infrastructure development”)that one can see: hospital development, with some mysterious development of an off-shore health facility linked to UWI, where some lucky few would have access to superb care.
Not a word about prevention of chronic diseases. Not a word about treatment of addiction (alcohol and other drugs). Not a word about treatment of mental illness, a vastly underserved area of health care in T&T. Not a word about ensuring health equity, instead leaving it to chance and money that you get good health care in T&T.
Hospitals are surely important but that is a sweet, small part of Health. Where is the broader, embracing vision of “Health”?
The starting line in the Budget Speech of “our public health institutions continue to provide high quality healthcare to our citizens” is laughed at by those who have to wait many months for specialized tests. But if you have the money, health care is wonderful!
TRANSPORTATION Now to a third area of the quality of life in T&T: Public Transportation. A fair share of daily life in T&T is spent getting from one place to the next, especially home to work to home, sometimes 20% of your day. Automobiles dominate our transportation life. And everyone has their own sad stories of getting to and from work. We are two islands. There just is not space to build more roads. So, we must resort to Public Transportation. And what does the 2020 Budget Speech give us: We get half a page on Public Transportation. And the half a page talks about getting 25 more buses by the end of 2019, as if that would do anything for our traffic mess. Not a single thought about mass rapid transportation, something the island-state of Singapore mastered some 30 years ago (and they had no oil or natural gas!). Mass transit is our only solution for the future in terms of transportation. Where is the vision? Where is the imagination?
Agriculture We could not possibly be serious about agriculture with an allocation of $700 million. Yes, it is nice to make agriculture a tax-free industry and that is welcome news. But the$700 million allocation seems rather measly when we are trying to diversify our economy.
Tourism Here is another important area in our attempt to diversify the economy. But here too the allocation is dismal; a mere $30 million.
And then there is the Cosmetics. Cosmetics always look good, a little lipstick here, a little tweaking of the eyelashes there. And so a $2.50 an hour increase in the minimum wage is lovely. Barely enough to buy a roti at the end of a day’s wage, but it is still something. Does little for dealing with our serious problem of income inequality. Wish we had a couple paragraphs instead on a Universal Basic Income (UBI) for all adults over age 18, with no job requirement.
Let us stop here, otherwise we’ll end up with a 154-page response. And so few would read that, in the same way so few would read the full budget speech and ask “So how does the $50+ billion budget help get us to a fantastic Trinidad and Tobago?” We somehow trust the PNM-UNC regimes will get us there. It is a misplaced trust. Time to try Green.
Dr. Everold Hosein (Ph.D.) Political Leader, Green Party of Trinidad and Tobago