Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar was able to command prime time on Friday night when she announced a major reshuffle of her Cabinet. In unveiling the realigned ministerial portfolios, she said members of her government “must deliver a level of competence and performance for an impatient and expectant population.” How this new Cabinet configuration affects governance and delivery of service to the people will become clearer over the next several weeks and months. What is immediately obvious, however, is that the People’s Partnership Cabinet now comprises three dozen ministers to serve a population of just over 1.3 million—more ministries per capita, according to some estimates, than any country in the world, including India, which has a population of 1.2 billion people. This is the result of the addition of four new ministries—National Diversity and Social Integration; Science and Technology; Communications; and Environment and Water. Also, while two ministers were removed from the Cabinet—John Sandy and Verna St Rose-Greaves—four new ones have been sworn in—Ganga Singh, Larry Howai, Marlene Coudray and Jamal Mohammed.
Apart from the increase in size, this is certain to incur some costs, since there will need to be an adjustment of public-sector staff, including more permanent secretaries and senior public servants to fill administrative positions in the new entities. These changes will be extensive, since only seven ministries remain the same—Legal Affairs, the Attorney General’s Office, and the ministries of the People, Labour, Energy, Planning and Sport. These changes don’t suggest the often promised new politics; some of them instead raise the spectre of “jobs for the boys” and “eat a food” politics that has hung over successive political administrations in Trinidad and Tobago. It also makes it difficult to ignore MSJ leader David Abdulah’s claims that party loyalty rather than competence is a determining factor for ministerial and other appointments by the PP administration. Some of the changes may help ease the friction between the UNC and COP elements of the coalition following the defection of former San Fernando Mayor Marlene Coudray from the COP to the UNC a few months ago. But that is a party political issue, not necessarily one calculated to benefit the population. What in Ms Persad-Bissessar’s “reconfiguration” provides the solid foundation she claims is needed to advance the “blueprint for national development that would be historic in nature”? Certainly there is no progress in terms of gender balance. Ironically, in a Cabinet headed by this country’s first female prime minister, women have been the biggest losers in this and the previous reshuffle. This certainly does not gel with the ongoing campaign by Hazel Brown and other local activists to increase the number of women representatives across the political landscape.
Since the first PP Cabinet was announced two years ago, four women have lost their ministerial portfolios. Mary King was fired; Therese Baptiste-Cornelis and Rudrawatee Nan Ramgoolam were sent off on diplomatic posting overseas. Vernella Alleyne-Toppin has been demoted. This time around, further casualties are St Rose-Greaves and former parliamentary secretary Nicole Dyer-Griffith. This is certainly going in the opposite direction to the promise of 50 per cent women in T&T’s Parliament by 2015—an objective Ms Persad-Bissessar announced when she addressed a Caribbean Regional Colloquium on Women Leaders in Port-of-Spain a year ago. At that time, women constituted 27 per cent of the Senate and 26 per cent of the House of Representatives—already a lower figure than the previous administration. As of Friday, that percentage was reduced. While the improvements being claimed are yet to be demonstrated, some of the drawbacks of the latest reshuffle are already plain to see.