PM kicks for touch on fuel, food prices

PM kicks for touch on fuel, food prices

A bird's eye view of TOP's oil refinery, one of six refineries in the country.
A bird's eye view of TOP's oil refinery, one of six refineries in the country.

Wise men say putting the right man in the right job will get it done and done well. So when Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha last week assigned the National Security Council (NSC) to take the lead in tackling energy and food problems, many eyebrows were raised, questioning the rationale of such bizarre idea.

Move Forward party-list MP Woraphob Viriyaroj said he thought it was a fake news because it sounds weird that an economic problem would be solved through security means. He said the Energy Ministry is empowered to solve the problem, but it sits idly by.

Lt-Gen Paradon Patthanathabut, former secretary-general of the NSC and an adviser of the opposition Pheu Thai Party, said the energy problem confronted by Thailand is not about a shortage of fuel which may lead to national insecurity, but high fuel prices which are driving up the price of many consumer goods and causing hardship for many.

He said the person who should be held responsible to deal with this problem is the prime minister and it appears he is now passing the buck to the NSC.

Nevertheless, NSC chief Gen Supote Malaniyom is prepared to take up the challenge. He said he will invite various agencies for a meeting to discuss energy and food problems and come up with measures for the government.

The Energy Ministry is supposed to take the lead in tackling energy issues, just as the Commerce Ministry is supposed to look after the price of goods and services. The prime minister's preference for the NSC downgrades them to playing the second fiddle's role.

In other words, this can be interpreted to mean the prime minister does not trust Energy Minister Supattanapong Punmeechaow nor Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanavisit.

The NSC has played a key role in containing the Covid-19 spread by chairing a panel at the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), charged with screening measures proposed by Public Health Ministry before they are submitted to the CCSA for finalisation.

But for the NSC to play the leading role in the effort to solve energy and food prices leaves much to be desired. First of all, is the NSC chief as knowledgeable as the energy minister about energy affairs or as knowledgeable as the commerce minister about goods and services? My answer is "No".

Take for an example pork, where the price has surged beyond 200 baht/kg. This issue is less complicated than the energy price. How can the NSC tackle this problem? And how long it will take to solve it? Does Gen Supote have in mind a solution?

The energy price is more complicated and the issue involves refineries which are powerful and influential unlike pork vendors or farmers. They include the PTT Plc, the PTT Global Chemical Plc, the Bangchak Corp, Esso (Thailand), Star Petroleum, Thai Oil and IRPC Plc which are collectively known as the Petroleum Refinery Industry Club. These companies are not state enterprises and driven by internal market factors.

Kla party leader Korn Chatikavanij said the refineries' gross refining margin has in the past several months increased from .88 baht per litre to 8.56 baht/litre as he urged the prime minister to cut their margin so as to reduce fuel prices.

However, the prime minister is reluctant to take such a hardline approach and chooses to seek their cooperation instead to reduce the gross refining margin. He also claimed he has no power to intervene in their affairs.

The prime minister's claim was challenged by former finance minister Thirachai Phuvanatnarubala, citing Section 25 of the Goods and Service Prices Act which empowers the government to set a limit on the gross refining margin of oil refineries for public interest.

The prime minister's soft approach may stem from the fact he is an independent member of the Energy Regulatory Commission which has received stipends paid for by oil refineries.

Perhaps he is borrowing the hand of Gen Supote to do a job that he is reluctant to do himself.

It won't take long for us to know whether this military approach works or not. If it does fail, the prime minister will pay a high price.

Nevertheless, the most affected group will be the people, those who will bear the ultimate cost of their leader's failure to put the right man in the right job.

Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.

Veera Prateepchaikul

Former Editor

Former Bangkok Post Editor, political commentator and a regular columnist at Post Publishing.

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