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‘Reduce post-election strain for businesses’
Former president of the T&T Chamber of Industry and Commerce
When there is rapid social or political change or threat of change businesses, large and small, must consider whether, from an individual perspective, these changes will be for the better or worse of their businesses. Those in charge must then make business decisions having regard to their conclusions.
It would be fair to say that the year 2013 has been a year of rapid political change. In January 2013, the Government was seemingly invulnerable. All dispassionate observers would have concluded that it would serve out the balance of its term of office with reasonable quietude considering the country’s robust political style.
Ten months later, in October 2013, all political observers now agree that the Government has suffered serious electoral setbacks, may suffer more in the near future, and must now work very hard to revive its fortunes if it hopes to prevail in the next general election. Failing that, the possibility of a change of government looms on the horizon.
Regardless of their political persuasion, business people in Trinidad and Tobago have to be concerned about this possibility. The country had a change of government just over three years ago which has, as these momentous events do, caused enormous disruption in the smooth running of the country.
Businesses should be concerned that some 100 state-owned companies and authorities are thrown into post-election paralysis as the incoming government dismisses all incumbent directors, assumed no doubt to be hostile to the incoming regime, and replaces them with hundreds of their own chosen candidates.
This exercise to locate suitable candidates sometimes takes months or even years and until it is completed, no decisions are taken, contracts languish unsigned, and the leaderless organisation is in limbo. Were these organisations in the private sector many of them would not survive this hiatus. Ironically, many of those dismissed might be supporters of the new Government. No attempt is apparently made to ascertain this.
Businesses should be concerned about the cessation of payments to contractors particularly in the construction sector as the new government calls a halt to payment of completed contracted work in order, they claim, to examine the justification of the payments and the propriety of the decisions of their predecessors who approved the contracts.
Some contractors, who have funded the work through bank loans which they cannot repay until they are paid, do not survive this interregnum.
This situation comes about because incoming governments tend to believe their campaign trail rhetoric and are sure that the activities of the outgoing rascals (and that is how they regard them) deserve scrutiny, but there is little evidence that sufficient impropriety is discovered by this means to justify this massive disruption of the financial affairs of those companies unfortunate enough to be caught up in this exercise.
Businesses must be concerned about the learning curve. With the best of will, the affairs of the country are placed overnight into the hands of people who have little or no experience in governance. It takes considerable time for them to be trained, on the job, to the detriment of the country’s affairs. There is one saving grace.
Businesses need not be concerned about the mechanics of electoral change, nor need they have any fear of social upheaval from disappointed electors. Elections are free and fair and for over 50 years all changes of ruling parties, and there have been several, have been done with a graciousness worthy of much older democracies. This has become ingrained in our national psyche and the people of the country expect no less.
All of this is not an argument against having general elections when constitutionally required, be it at the end of a term or otherwise at the behest of the incumbent prime minister. It is a plea to politicians, either in or out of government, to be sensitive to the issues discussed here and do all they can to reduce post-election difficulties for the business community. A few suggestions might be useful for consideration of a way forward.
Privatisation of state companies must be put on the table. This should be done in any event to reduce state patronage and delays in appointment of directors. This will be the subject of a future article. Lists of prospective directors of state companies should be prepared, as much as possible, in advance. Directors who are efficient and are not known to be partisan should be left in place.
Where investigation of suspect “deals” are to be pursued, a select list of these should be prepared and for the rest, business should continue as usual. Implementation of these suggestions will go a long way to shorten that post-election period when everybody is waiting for the Government to settle in.
The economy has been adversely affected in the past by virtue of the paralysis that is inflicted on the business sector. Little regard has been paid to the damaging effect that this has had on many businesses and the employees of those businesses themselves.
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