The scent of violence and fear hung thick in the air on the “Gaza Strip” in Enterprise last Friday. “They does call here the Gaza Strip.
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Coming strong off his landslide victory at the People’s National Movement’s (PNM) first one-man-one-vote internal elections last Sunday, re-elected party leader and Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley has accepted that his slate could form the next government of T&T. In an interview with Sunday Guardian senior reporter RENUKA SINGH, at Balisier House on Wednesday, Rowley put this latest victory into context, and talks about his open-arms policy towards all races, and the possibility of a PNM coalition in the future.
Q: In the last 24 months, there have been several calls made by you for the Government to call an early election. Is the PNM ready for a possible snap election?
A: The PNM is as ready as we can be and we get readier every day. If an election is called now, we will be able to contest it and with every passing day we get better prepared. We are not unmindful of the fact that we have to be ready as an alternative to this Government.
So you already have in your mind or have already started planning what your Cabinet would look like, what your ministries would look like?
(Dr Rowley leaned back on the chair and intertwined his fingers over his abdomen before responding) Well, we have a very good idea of many of the (pause) Cabinet structures that we’d put in place. You would have heard me talk about the Public Service and a smaller Cabinet ...(pause)...we have done a lot of review of policy and where these policies would be executed.
What this Government has done is to, um, explode the number of ministries. The effect of that has been to make the Public Service very dysfunctional and splintered, and against my stated policy for a smaller Cabinet. Things that are ministries on their own would be part of another ministry. Doesn’t mean that those functions would not be discharged. For example, the people who are now under the umbrella of Local Government as a ministry, they would be under the Ministry of Finance, right? So you have one Cabinet position.
Remember, the ministry is a funded agency. Same thing with the Ministry for Tobago Development, that is a political convenience to give the TOP (Tobago Organisation for the People) Delmon Baker a job. What he is doing there is THA (Tobago House of Assembly) work. It doesn’t mean that those people or those assignments are not going to be carried out. I heard the Prime Minister talking about sending home public servants. That is not the issue. The issue is the management structure.
For example, the creation of the ministry for Ganga Singh (Environment and Water Resources) to award more contracts through WASA. I mean, a Ministry of Public Utilities...is that the voice of the Cabinet? You don’t need to have five people in the five splinters and each one has a dedicated permanent secretary, and a layer of bureaucracy, which is expensive—and that is where the problem arises in the current arrangement, and we would clean that up by having a proper structure.
So Cabinet positions...and so they come later on...but the Public Service orientation, we are in very fruitful and intense discussions about that, understanding what we would like to see at the Government.
Right now, the Government is an amorphous creature, neither fish nor fowl, but what comes out of it is unacceptable. That unacceptability is widely known to the population and we want to bring that back, so that you can have Cabinet control, Cabinet-led responsibility, proper conduct, led by a Prime Minister for whom the office of Prime Minister is not a playground.
Four years ago, the People’s Partnership, that coalition, seemed to have benefited from a lot of anti-Manning sentiment. Do you think that any anti-PP sentiment now is working to your advantage?
Well, in every situation there is competition between those in office and those outside of office. What goes on with those in office must have an impact on those on the outside. Because if the population is satisfied by what’s going on in office, then those who are outside would be seen as not quite ready for the change. On the other hand, if what’s inside is not satisfactory, then the population will look outside to see what’s available and will choose.
We are confident that this disaster which is the People’s Partnership Government has so damaged the psyche, the prospects and the potential of the people of T&T that they will look to the PNM to improve their situation, and that’s why we are preparing our policies, our personnel to be able to deliver on that promise.
Are you prepared for what can be the weight of the public’s collective need for recovery by next year?
Well, the answer is yes, because the job description carries it. The Prime Minister of T&T has a job description, and I understand it fully well. I have been around for a long time, I have been in the Opposition for a long time, I have been in the Cabinet for a long time, and I understand what is required. So I am not going into this like many people in Government today, who saw a battle of elections and created a vacuum.
They were drinking a rounds in a bar and they decided to run for elections and said, “I’m going to become a minister” and now find themselves completely out of their depth. Fortunately for me, and for the party, and for the country, me and some of my colleagues have had the experience of serving in and out of government. So we bring to the people of T&T the value of that experience.
Right after the [PNM internal] elections—I don’t know if the count has been finalised, but the Prime Minister said it may not have been much of a victory because there was a 17 per cent voter turnout. What are your thoughts on that?
I think the Prime Minister keeps embarrassing herself. She has become the mouthpiece of her handlers, and she has been reduced to being a puppet of her spin doctors (long pause).
She should have known that that is not a serious statement, and she knows that because when she was elected as the leader of the UNC (United National Congress), a party which claims to have the same membership or larger than the PNM, she got less than 13,000 votes—12,000 and something—she got less than 13,000 votes. Nobody, no minister or her handlers now, made an issue of how many votes she got, they accepted her victory as phenomenal, and they labelled it Kamla-mania.
I have been elected in a similar circumstance, on our first time out in a one-man-one-vote, with 18,000-plus votes, and she is taking issue with my election? And is looking at percentages?
That Volney apology: Volney offered a mea culpa, apologised, and shouldered all the blame for his role in the Section 34 issue...your thoughts?
We. Not. Buying. That. It was a pathetic, nauseating display which was quite disturbing when one saw that it was happening in the office of the Attorney General, directed by the Attorney General and involving a former member of the High Court bench in T&T, that is what I found disturbing about it.
Do you think it exonerates the AG? Is Section 34 dead?
Well, let me tell you what that is. That attempt, that pathetic attempt by Volney, grovelling in the office of the Attorney General, in no way influences our understanding of the responsibility of the Prime Minister of T&T for the scandal of her mandate being squandered in the Section 34 fiasco.
It in no way relieves the Cabinet or her Government of the responsibility of advancing Section 34 for proclamation, and it in no way relieves the Attorney General of his responsibility as adviser to the Cabinet, out of whose ministry came the proclamation required, which misled the President about the need to proclaim Section 34.
None of those issues have been addressed by Volney’s indecent behaviour, which we will view as an attempt by Volney to get into the state trough that exists at the AG’s office and other kinds of appointments.
The PNM has always been a standalone organisation, a standalone party, but in recent times you’ve been meeting with the Roundtable, you’ve been having conversations with trade unions, with other political parties like the MSJ.
Do you foresee any sort of alliance going forward into the next election or is the PNM going to remain on its own?
The PNM is a party of the people of T&T. We made it quite clear that we are engaged with, for, and eventually by the people of T&T, and what we do, we ensure that we have the capacity to stand alone if we have to. We do not set out to cut ourselves off from the rest of the population.
We admit that over time, with our long service in government, that being in government has caused us to have drifted away from our original moorings, our connection to the labour movement, our connection to the professional bodies, and we are re-establishing those connections. We do not believe in this thing about the era of this and the era of that. The PNM is a national institution and we stand with people of T&T, wherever they are.
So you are not ruling out the idea of subsuming another existing political party under the PNM umbrella?
Well, we have not gone there in trying to form accommodation, but certainly, in the national interest, we will stand shoulder to shoulder with other citizens who have a similar objective in mind. Which is why we are very comfortable participating in (Friday’s march). We are all T&T citizens, we all have a common goal; and that is to protect the interest of T&T. So we are very happy with that arrangement...
The trade union movement can be seen as almost fickle, in that four years ago they were campaigning for the People’s Partnership and now there is a massive falling out. Are you concerned that, should you be elected to office, they could now hold you to ransom?
No, they won’t be able to. But I’ll tell you what, I have tremendous respect for the trade union, the role that they play in the country, the role that they are playing, the role that they should play. I see them as an integral part of the national development issues, the credit union movement, the IRO, the Tobago House of Assembly as a body running the affairs of Tobago.
I have a strong view and intention to make local government stronger in dispensing goods and services at a local level, the universities, these are all components of national development which we need and, with proper PNM guidance, can become stronger and at the end of the day, the population of T&T is better served.
Coming out of the elections, you said there is no need for any healing because no one inflicted any wounds, but is there going to be a place for the Penny slate?
I don’t know about any “Penny slate,” I know about party members choosing a national executive. I am not buying into this arrangement that there was an election in the PNM and one body opposed another body. We competed for office, the membership has chosen its officers, that is what it is. I don’t know that they were negotiating position based on who took part in the election.
This seems to be an obsession with those outside the PNM—it is not one for me. We had an election and there were people who were predicting doomsday and I do not subscribe to that, and I am not encouraging it.
I have a responsibility to all the members of this organisation and we have a focus, we have an assignment, and the organisation is very broad-based and nobody is disqualified by virtue of offering yourself to serve, by the same token nobody gets a deed for having come forward. We are all party members, and we will all contribute to the best of our ability and according to our willingness.
I am very suspicious of the people for whom the only issue is one of healing because they may very well know about wounds that I am not familiar with. The PNM is going forward as a respected alternative to the Government of the day, our organisation is getting stronger, will continue to get stronger. I am under no illusion that there are some party members with different points of view and those points of view do not disqualify you by virtue of having those points of view. The organisation is one for all reasonable opinions.
Seeing as you pointed that out, the place for everyone, there is a prevailing cultural mindset that the UNC is East Indian and the PNM is Afro-Trinidadian. Do you see the PNM as a broad-based political group?
There are people in the country that would always want to portray the PNM, portray me in the most negative light and if they want to spend their day doing that, let them do that. We will be examined and judged on our record, and there are those small minorities who, as they say, the man convinced against his will, would be of the same opinion still, we know that.
So we do what we have to do and our record will speak for itself. You reach out to the national community and they call it window dressing; you find yourself not representative of everyone and they call you racial. So we don’t take advice from those quarters. We represent all the people of T&T. What we always do is give every citizen the opportunity to participate in the PNM, vote for the PNM, be a part of the PNM, and citizens voluntarily choose to come on board.