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Brinkmanship serves no useful purpose

Published: 
Sunday, January 8, 2017

Given the high stakes that were riding on it, Friday's decision by the Government to concede to the demands of the Opposition to hold a joint select committee meeting to analyse the Tax Information Exchange Agreements bill is most welcome.

That bill is the crucial piece of the jigsaw puzzle that could eventually lead to T&T fulfilling its commitment to the US government to pass the legislation that paves the way for the implementation of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA).

While the government is to be congratulated for its concession, some serious questions still need to be asked with regard to the thinking that drives the people who lead this country at this time of increasing economic, social and industrial relations problems.

Certain things are clear with regard to the FATCA legislation:

n It requires a special three-fifths majority in both houses of parliament because the Tax Information Exchange Agreements bill contains clauses that are inconsistent with the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed by sections 4 and 5 of the Constitution of T&T;

n The Government does not now have a three-fifths majority in either legislature. That means passage of the legislation requires the cooperation of the opposition in the lower house and the cooperation of three non-government Senators;

n Back in September, the Opposition made it clear that its support was contingent on the Government agreeing to a joint select committee.

Against that background—and given the importance to the country's banking and payment systems—clearly the speech Minister of Finance Colm Imbert delivered on Friday should have been delivered four months ago.

Even if he considered that the Opposition's demands amounted to blackmail and holding the country to ransom, Mr Imbert should have been very clear in his mind that the legislation needs the support of the "other side" to be passed.

That calculation alone should have indicated to him that that was one battle that he was not going to win, no matter how much he huffed and puffed and threatened to blow down the United National Congress's house—wherever it is now located now.

In the circumstances, a gracious concession to the Opposition's demands four months ago would have saved T&T from the histrionics and brinkmanship that certainly do not become a political party that has governed T&T for as many years as the People's National Movement or a finance minister with as much parliamentary experience as Mr Imbert.

One of dangers of brinkmanship is that sometimes people fall off the edge. And while Mr Imbert was smart enough to pull the country back from the edge in the FATCA matter, it seems the Government wants to take the country back to the brink with regard to the Petrotrin strike.

With just hours to go before thousands of workers down tools at the Petrotrin refinery, the Government has made no attempt to take the issue of the first collective agreement period (2011 to 2015) out of the Industrial Court.

Instead government spokesmen have stuck stubbornly to the script that the second period (2015 to 2018) cannot be settled unless and until the Industrial Court has set the benchmark with a judgment for the earlier period.

While saying that the issue is best left with the Industrial Court may seem like a clever argument, clearly logic dictates that an out-of-court offer before the strike gets started would save the country a great deal of stress.

The lesson from FATCA is that it is better to concede a weak hand early in a way that seems like a negotiation rather than a concession, rather than continuing to hold on to the hand and being forced to concede.