One month ago, mother of two and businesswoman, Ria Sookdeo, kissed her children goodbye as she dropped them off at school.
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PM on errant ministers: There is NO FEAR, no one is above the law
In a hard-hitting exclusive Q&A with the Sunday Guardian, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar did not hold back from sending a clear message about how she intends to handle the fifth year of her administration. This interview gives an insight into many aspects of the ups and downs of her tenure, and reveals that she is ready to turn onto the road to the next general election.
Ms Kamla Persad-Bissessar, what is your biggest challenge being Prime Minister of T&T today?
Oh, there have been quite a few great challenges which, with focus and staying dedicated to a vision of prosperity for all, we have managed quite well. One of those challenges has been to ensure that, as we worked to deliver on the needs of all citizens, we also balanced our need to communicate with all citizens on how work is progressing.
There have also been challenges in managing a diverse coalition and ensuring that there is a strong and comfortable balance between being consultative, but also decisive in doing what is right for all citizens. There have been disagreements over the years, but the proof of success is not in the disagreements, but rather in the fact that we still stand together, with a shared objective of delivering a better T&T today, and for the future.
All told, however, whatever the challenges that have come and will come, as a strongly united and stable government, we are ready to manage them, overcome them, and deliver the better nation we promised.
Prime Minister, have you achieved the goals that you had personally set for the people of T&T prior to the 2010 general election?
I am pleased to say that we are almost there. If we look at goals set by our manifesto in 2010, I can confirm that of the 260 pledges we made, our Government has been able to deliver on 90 per cent of them. That’s a remarkable achievement for two significant reasons.
Firstly, no other government has ever committed its manifesto, through Parliament, as its public policy agenda, and stuck to it. Furthermore, no other government has ever remained so loyal to its promises that it can account to the nation that in four of the five years in this term, we’ve already delivered 90 per cent of what we promised.
In addition to those, there were some commitments I made which were very close to my heart. One is the successful operation of the Children’s Life Fund where 88 children’s lives have been saved…that’s 88 families who didn’t have to suffer the humiliation of desperately seeking funds for expensive medical care, and that’s 88 families who didn’t lose their precious little ones because of not being able to access life-saving medical care on account of money.
Another is that by the end of our first term, we would have made the secondary school system technology-driven, with children from forms one to five having their own laptops. And of course, the successful launch of a national conversation which seals our commitment to citizens that they will always have a protected right to share their ideas with the Government on what they believe is best for a secure future.
We also have an increasingly commanding presence both regionally and internationally. Today, T&T continues its leadership role in Caricom and is making significant progress in Latin America.
Additionally, we are highly respected in other regional groupings as well as in international fora such as the Commonwealth and the United Nations. The fact that the President of China and the Vice President of the United States have come to us, and Canada hosted us to an official visit are all indications of the kind of international esteem we have earned for our citizens over the past four years.
According to the polls, Madam PM, you are still very popular among the citizens. However, some of your ministers have not received a favourable rating. How do you intend to treat with ministerial mishaps as the 2015 general election gets closer?
I am deeply humbled by the results of that poll. It’s good news, especially since it was commissioned by the media and conducted by a respected independent organisation. But this is not about me or how well I do. This is about the people and what they feel.
So, if the people are saying they are pleased, we are indeed heartened by their endorsement. It tells us that, notwithstanding a steady barrage of unsubstantiated resistance from the Opposition on a number of public policy issues, the passage of time has proven to citizens that the Government has in fact been working in their best interest.
Regarding others in this administration, let me just say that we work as a team and each member of the team understands that our top priority is delivery on our promises and meeting the needs of citizens. I think I have convincingly shown the nation that where tough decisions are required, I will not shirk my responsibility and that commitment shall remain.
When we took office, we had to begin working immediately on turning around a declining economy, falling revenues, a weakening energy sector, rampant corruption, and an education sector that lacked a true vision for our children and the future, among other major issues of course.
Today, just four years later, global monitoring agencies like the IMF and Moody’s acknowledge our re-energised economy, stability and strong credit rating. From decline, we are now in a position to project growth of 2.5 per cent this year and three per cent in 2015.
Our foreign reserves are in excess of US$10 billion, our Heritage and Stabilisation Fund is now a strong 20 per cent of GDP, our energy industry is on the rebound, and foreign direct investment has moved from a low US$549 million in 2010, to US$1.831 billion in 2011, to an all-time high of US$2.452 billion in 2012, and preliminary figures for 2013 show US$1.713 billion.
We have created more jobs for our citizens than previous administrations, and there will be more as we continue succeeding in economic diversification. One proposed project in San Fernando alone would create 2,000 new jobs. Today, the national unemployment figure stands at 3.5 per cent—which in economic terms means we’ve passed the full employment threshold. And we have worked hard to bring down inflation from double digits to 3.7 per cent. We continue to lead the region as an economic giant.
But let me make the point that our work must continue to sustain such tremendous progress. Based on where we have brought our nation in just four years, my pledge is that our country will witness an increase in the level of development and new initiatives that are unparalleled in any time of our nation’s history. And that, ultimately, will be the true measure of the job to which I dedicate myself completely.
Are you really satisfied with the performance of your ministers? If not, how do you intend to deal with this?
Well, to say "satisfied" means to become complacent; we cannot ever become complacent. I will never be completely satisfied, even with 100 per cent delivery. In a world that is evolving faster than at any other time in history, there will always be more to do. We have to meet the myriad needs of a complex population and every need is important to us. The whole point of government is to improve the lives of the people and we are constantly working to do that.
In light of all the ministerial missteps, do you plan to establish a code of ethics or conduct for your ministers?
I want to remind you of what I told ALL my ministers on May 26, 2010, when our first Cabinet was installed: “We must accept no mediocrity. Neither must we contribute to it in any way. There must be no room for arrogance. We must be faithful to a leadership style that is firm but humble, passionate and impatient for great achievements but ever conscious of the correct procedures.” I remain committed to that and hold every member of Cabinet to that.
How do you respond to claims that you are afraid to remove AG Ramlogan in the face of allegations with respect to E-mailgate, Section 34, and the prison scandal, and calls from several quarters for him to be fired?
The records would show that I make decisions based on an examination of all the facts, and no one is above the law. It is in the interest of the Opposition to keep demanding that I remove ministers. Over the past four years, there has been a pattern to keep trying to get rid of ministers one by one.
My track record is clear—if a minister has to go, she or he will go. But such decisions will be made only after a consideration of all the relevant facts. Let me assure you that for as long as I am Prime Minister, there will be NO FEAR whatsoever in making any decision that benefits the people of T&T. And in saying that, I also reaffirm my commitment to act in the best interest of citizens, not by random, ill-conceived, unquantified and unsubstantiated allegations by the Opposition.
Has leading by consensus worked? If so, how do you account for so many ministerial missteps? Do you think that you may want to reconsider your style of leadership?
Yes, it has worked, and I will tell you exactly why. Consensus by its very nature means that we must discuss our ideas with stakeholders and arrive at a conclusion where we do not sacrifice our guiding principles, but rather arrive at a point where we can all agree that a plan will work in the national interest.
What this has meant for us is that we have opened up the Government to the highest level of transparency and public intervention than at any other time in our history. What happened as a result is that steps along the way where issues required further work, which in past governments could have been hidden, were open for public scrutiny. And where the public saw these issues, we didn’t at any point hide from the facts; we actually moved with greater determination to achieve our objectives.
That said, leading a coalition government requires careful and intricate co-ordination and from time to time, people make mistakes. But again, this administration is the most transparent we have ever had, so while people see the mistakes made, enough time has passed for them to also see that objectives have been achieved.
More than that, what distinguishes our government from others is that when we make a mistake, we acknowledge it and take immediate corrective action—also a new standard brought by this administration. So, yes, I am happy with my style of leadership and based on the poll you mentioned earlier, it appears that the people approve of my commitment to hear their views, remain firmly connected to what they want for their lives to succeed, and then act in their best interest.
Is there any truth to a cabal operating within the PP Cabinet?
There is no cabal. Unlike other prime ministers, I have worked on the basis of discussion and consensus. I consult with all my ministers on important issues and we make collective decisions. That consultative process is why our Government has been so successful in delivering to the people. I can assure that there is NO CABAL, but consultation with stakeholders, and public participation in government decision-making will remain a right of citizens.
Basdeo Panday and Patrick Manning said a couple years ago that you were not ready for the job. How do you respond to that now?
I think sufficient time has now passed for many to understand how I approach criticism. At no time do I ignore anything anyone says, especially former leaders who had their own style and their own ways of leading. But what I do not do is allow myself to become embroiled in public fights with anyone over their opinions. Fighting on opinions achieves little and, in fact, distracts from the very important job of carefully taking our country to a place where it is truly a jewel of the Americas.
There have been times when I was guided by criticism, and there have been times when I decided not to be distracted by political taunts. And I believe, whatever has been said, the evidence now speaks for itself. The people are pleased with my performance, and they are the ones who matter most. Some people said we would come apart almost immediately, but here we are after four years—a strong government and a strong coalition working together for the benefit of all the people.
Had I been easily distracted by anyone expressing their views on my leadership, we could not possibly have delivered 90 per cent of our manifesto promises. And I should also point out, had I adopted the kind of leadership this country has known in the past, our coalition Government would not have withstood four years. Yet, today, we are extremely strong and on course to finishing our first term successfully.
How do you intend to resolve the issue of racism in the country, especially as it is rearing its ugly head as campaigning for the general election has started?
Racism and discrimination—on the basis of someone’s ethnicity, geographic location or anything of the sort—have no place in the governance and progress of a modern society. I will not tolerate it in any form and condemn it wherever it is allowed.
Our country suffered from ethnic polarisation in the past, and one of the things I resolved to do when I entered politics was to make sure I worked for the people without consideration for race. Nothing can be built on division; everyone must be equal, and no one must ever feel inferior.
We would continue to work for the people as we have been doing and denounce anyone or any group that tries to push that line on our people. We are a small country and those who want to use race for political gain would find that the people would reject them. We see everyone as equal and there is NO PLACE in our party and our partnership for anyone who disagrees with that.
Is there a personal interest to develop Central and South and less on the East-West Corridor, where the balance of power hangs?
Certainly not. And if you analyse our development programme, you would see that it takes into account the needs of every part of the country. However, let me make it clear that rural Trinidad suffered from State neglect for decades and our Government made a conscious effort to rebuild the infrastructure and provide amenities.
As an example, there was one community in Mayaro where we delivered water for the first time in 100 years! One hundred years…and where some are seeing development taking place now and questioning the Government’s agenda, they should first ask why it took so long for basic amenities to reach communities that are part of T&T.
How do you explain to the population claims that the Government is more interested in the development of the UNC stronghold areas?
I am not convinced that is the view of the population. It’s the misinformation that’s coming from the Opposition and our detractors. And such misinformation is when you have no vision for leadership and intend to try to win based on pounding at everything and not building anything.
We do not have a seat in Diego Martin but we are extending the highway there. When the area suffered the worst flooding in years, we were there immediately to help. We are building a highway to Point Fortin…but Point Fortin is hardly considered a stronghold of our party.
Our development is focused on T&T, and we are rebuilding this country community by community. The Opposition will continue to object, not on the basis of having any kind of plan, but because they need the support that we have and they will do anything to create doubt in the minds of citizens. But when you are not only talking, but instead delivering to every single part of T&T, it is hard to doubt the evidence of delivery, even when they are in places that are held by the Opposition.
When was the last time you had a really relaxing day...maybe a day at the beach or just shopping, no phones, no TV, no papers, no media, no ministers? And many years ago, you said that you love politics: is the feeling the same now?
I cannot say. But you know, serving the people successfully is extremely motivating. It is something that my husband Gregory supports me on and he has always been my chief supporter and confidante. It is something that my son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren support me on, and they understand how demanding the job can be.
And when I meet people, hear their stories, and learn that we are touching their lives in a very direct way, it provides a very deep inspiration—the kind that keeps you working late into the night, and keeps you satisfied on only two or three hours sleep. That is what I have done all through my political life and that is what I intend to do for as long as I command the support of our citizens. I should also mention that my intention is to ensure that prime ministers serve no more than two terms.
That means the moment we successfully pass such legislation, we give citizens a greater right to choose their leaders, rather than anyone believing himself or herself to be a leader for life. So based on citizens support and the passage of that legislation, I will continue to directly serve the people. And with my love for politics and service, I can wait for the time when I can do the simple things again.
Why have you allowed the COP to be subsumed under the PP? Wouldn’t it have been better to allow the COP as a partnership member to determine its own progress?
I disagree with that statement. The Fyzabad Declaration established the guidelines for our partnership and it still applies. Each member of our partnership is equal but each member also operates independently. Our mission in 2010—and our mission today and for the future—remains the same: to serve the people.
We had differences because each member of our coalition is a different political organisation. And as leader of the partnership and as leader of my party, I have always respected the views of the group, and I certainly have not interfered in their internal organisations and have no intention in doing so.
Failure to deal with public procurement, allegations of corruption and crime continue to mar the progress of your Government. How do you intend to treat with this during the coming year—the last of the PP 2010–2015 term?
Crime is a problem that was allowed to grow unchecked for a number of years under our predecessor administration, which preferred to use state resources to entertain gang leaders. I would not say we have failed. Rather, I would say that we have made some progress, but appreciate that people not only want to see progress in numbers, but also want to FEEL safe in their homes again.
We have made a significant dent in criminal activities and there has been a decline in crime since we took office. And we have provided the protective services with the resources they need, such as:
1. Modernised vehicles with GPS tracking
2. A networking system for fingerprinting for more than 70 police stations, so that no one is allowed to slip through the cracks
3. Fully computerised police stations which also facilitate better communication with all police posts and the central headquarters
4. A fully equipped Rapid Response Unit that functions on the basis of GPS tracking and continuous movement of police vehicles
5. Greater resources to municipal police to function better, respond quicker and provide greater protection to citizens
With respect to procurement legislation, we were delayed initially by a lack of co-operation by the Opposition. We put out the proposed legislation for public comment and have made adjustments. The bill is before the Parliament now and we expect it will pass. We have a number of legislative matters on our agenda for the last year, including constitutional reform, which is something we promised in 2010.
Do you believe that the removal of Jack Warner from the PP was a bad decision?