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Pm Kamla Persad-Bissessar- Political Survivor of The Year
Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the central figure in today’s political landscape, has admitted that her job is one of the hardest in the country. As Prime Minister, Persad-Bissessar is expected to be on call and available 24/7, she is open to criticism and praise in equal measure and is often judged on her wardrobe and appearance rather than her political savvy.
Under constant scrutiny and brutal Facebook attacks, Persad-Bissessar has lived through platform slips, misfires and attacks on her policies, her decisions and her ability to lead. As the first female Prime Minister of T&T, Persad-Bissessar is without a set template to guide her actions and seems to some to be carving her own path, sometimes in unorthodox ways, in an industry often led and dominated by men. In an interview with the Sunday Guardian, Persad-Bissessar talks politics, her family and running the country.
She has led her party through four losses at the polls, yet remains popular among the electorate. For her ability to weather the political storms, the Sunday Guardian has dubbed her the Political Survivor for 2013.
A fulfilling job
Her role as Prime Minister comes with “great responsibility” and an ability to change course with a moment’s notice. “No matter how much you plan in advance, something comes up that you need to address,” she said. “So yes, the job is hard. For me, there’s a balance between feeling the pressure of trying to make things better for every citizen, and taking satisfaction from what you can achieve.”
The job, she said, is also “hugely fulfilling.” “Every day, you see how people’s lives can be improved, problems sorted out, plans coming together. For example, every year for as long as I can remember, we’ve had too many schools not reopening on time because the vacation building works aren’t finished on time. “We need our children to know how important education is. And if we want them to work hard, then the Government has to work hard too. I know not every school opened as it should have.
“So next time, we need to do even better.”
‘The system militates against women rising’
Again, being in a male-dominated industry, Persad-Bissessar has often heard that she is either being led or influenced by the men that make up her Cabinet. This she continues to deny.
“We have many highly successful women in our country, but the system itself militates against women rising. Too often, women give up and don’t pursue their dreams. I would like to see more women get involved in politics at the highest levels, so that the country would see us for what we are and not pay attention to the shoes we wear and the dress we choose. We don’t notice that in men.
“I am my own woman…and was, long before I became PM. Attending to my family’s needs only made me stronger as a leader because if you know how to run a home and ensure each person’s particular need is met, it’s the best leadership training you can have.”
Dress code red?
Persad-Bissessar said while she could accept that her gender would be a subject of interest, it seemed slightly superficial that what she wore would trump what she said. “I am the first woman to hold this post in this country. Naturally, my gender was a point of interest, but too often this can be superficial. Every PM before me attended all manner of functions, but how often did you see a report on what they were wearing and how much the suit cost?” she asked.
“What concerns me more is not these distractions, but the suggestions that women cannot do this job, or hold any leadership position. This is plain sexism. This is what is happening with those claims about the cabal. It’s based on the prejudice that as a woman I am too weak to govern in my own right, and that women have to have men pulling the strings. Well, that’s not true. I listen to a wide range of opinions—you have to, in this position—but I take my own decisions.”
‘You can’t be thin-skinned’
“Politics has its ups and downs, and if you are thin-skinned and get discouraged every time someone is critical of you, then you won’t succeed. From the start, I knew that I would never be able to please everyone with everything I do. Perhaps this was always going to be harder for our Government given the huge expectations people had back in 2010. But my focus has remained the same—to do something to elevate people and make a better country.”
As a politician, Persad-Bissessar said she was forced to grow a thick skin and face criticism after making difficult decisions. “Not every decision I have made has been popular, but I have always wanted the best for our country. And I’ve tried to bring a new style of leadership by being ready to admit when things go wrong. Not shift the blame, but pledge myself to putting it right.
“You can’t run away from criticism. This year, some people were saying I should postpone the local elections. But I took an oath to uphold the Constitution, and that includes protecting people’s democratic rights. No government can take upon itself to withhold the people’s right to vote and to choose. And though we had some electoral losses, we gained something of immense value. We heard loud and clear from the people about what they wanted from my Government,” she said.
God, her husband, help her through rough times
She said her belief in God and support from her husband, Dr Gregory Bissessar, helps her through the toughest of times. “Without God, nothing is possible. You see, religion—in whichever way one practices it—is a solid, binding force that keeps an individual grounded, and a community together and focused on goals. That is why you have heard me say in speech after speech—hold my hand…let us put God in front and walk behind. Because that is the only way.
“As human beings, we cannot even begin to comprehend the greatness of God. However you perceive him, He is always with us and we must always put him in front,” she said. “I’m also so fortunate in my husband, Gregory. He doesn’t say what he thinks I want to hear; he says what he thinks is right and that makes him one of my great pillars of strength...in those moments when the demands of the job become extreme, I draw a lot of strength from my home and my grandchildren.”
Chief highlight of 2013
Heading into the next political year, the last before the constitutionally-due general election in 2015, Persad-Bissessar said chief among her highlights this year was the trip to South Africa with Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley for the ceremonial viewing of late icon Nelson Mandela. She said she would always remember the “spirit of unity and nationalism” displayed between the two opposing parties as they put aside political partisanship after Mandela’s passing.
“I am also proud of the way we put the interests of the people first in our constitutional reforms, such as the Proportional Representation Bill for Aldermen in the local government system. It was a first step to the kind of constitutional change that you will see in 2014.
‘You can’t do everything for everybody’
“Again, when one of my own party’s MPs changed sides, I requested the Speaker of the House declare the seat vacant. We lost a seat in Parliament as a result, but what was more important was the principle on which I acted,” she said.
“I know that in government you can’t do everything for everyone; it’s just not possible. So I focus on what I can do and how we can do it well. When I see a happy family moving into their new home, or a smile on a child’s face because they’ve had the medical treatment they need, or our elders able to live more comfortably…these things are priceless.”
New Constitution for 2014
Persad-Bissessar said she has already set a course of political action for next year.
“I am sure the nation would be pleased that we would have a new Constitution to show very early in the new year. It has taken time, but I would prefer to deliver reforms born out of the desires and ambitions of the people, so that those reforms will last. Another important area will be health. I’ve seen for myself that we have some really excellent health centres around the country, and if we could get the others up to that standard too, in the quality of care, how long you have to wait to be seen and so on, then it would make a huge difference to people’s everyday lives. So this is something I’m making a priority for 2014.”
Focus on creating safer communities
She said her Government will also see “great improvements in infrastructure with a continued emphasis in rural redevelopment. We will see even greater efforts in our fight against crime.” She said the reduced crime statistics were “not relevant” if people remained afraid in the country.
“We have provided the police with the resources they need and will continue to support measures to bring criminals to justice. There has been a reduction in crime, but statistics are not relevant so long as people live in fear. So our focus in 2014 must be to create safer communities and to make people feel safe.”
‘I reaffirm to listen more’
So as the year comes to a close, what does the Prime Minister resolve to do for 2014?
“Both personally and politically, I don’t call them resolutions, I call them reaffirmations. Personally, what I reaffirm is to be a better wife, mother and grandmother; to be a better sister and friend. To push the boundaries of compassion so that—despite my public duties—no one feels that I have not given enough of myself. Politically, what I reaffirm to do is to listen more, appreciate the needs and wants of the people more, extend the boundaries of social justice and reach even further so that those families we have not yet reached. We do reach!
“Equally important is the need to bring a greater alignment to what I know my Government is delivering, with the people’s belief that their needs are being met and that their faith in us was well placed.”
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