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Ministers muzzled, Govt gets poor grade

Sunday, March 6, 2016
Beach goer Ian Thomas takes a selfie with Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi at Pigeon Point, Tobago, yesterday. PHOTO: IAN THOMAS

The government’s performance since assuming office on September 7, 2015, has been evaluated as “poor” by one political analyst. 

Indera Sagewan-Alli said it was now six months post the general election and there was a sense the country is on auto-pilot, floating along without a sense of direction or destination. Tomorrow, the Government, led by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, marks its six-month milestone in office. Rowley and his Cabinet have been in Tobago on a retreat since last week. 

Sagewan-Alli said there was great uncertainty and fear among the population and a feeling the Government has gone underground, unable to provide the kind of leadership and decision making that is needed to inject a sense of confidence. 

She told the Sunday Guardian, “The economy of Trinidad and Tobago is in economic decline as a consequence of the contracting energy sector. “The Government is helpless to change the current course as it has no control over international prices of oil and gas, the response of multinational oil and gas companies and consequently its revenue inflow. “Moreover, the PNM has never managed the country in hard times and it appears that it is challenged to the task.”

In her view, the government’s two responses to the economic downturn was to find ways to squeeze more taxes out of the citizenry and to raise revenue through increased debt and draw downs from national savings. She said even before this recession, the middle and lower income earners were already stretched to the limit. “Now, the increased VAT net, re-introduction of property tax, threats of increased utility prices, coupled with price increases caused by the devaluing currency, and fear of job losses make for a fearful citizenry. 

“While the Government might have no choice in these regards, the population needs to feel that things are being put in place to get the economy out of the crisis,” Sagewan-Alli said. To date, she said, other than Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley advising the population to eat cassava, there has been silence on the way forward. She cautioned that increasing the country’s debt profile while whittling away at national savings to meet recurrent expenditure was a recipe for further economic decay.

Basdeo: Seven out of ten, they’re still on probation

For political analyst Dr Maukesh Basdeo, the government’s performance was rated seven out of ten. He said his reason was that it’s a six-month period and that it was difficult to provide an overall assessment. Basdeo stressed that the Government was in a probationary period. Apart from that, the Government has been burdened with two major issues—crime and the economy. 

He said crime was a major challenge given government’s policy regarding the Ministry of National Security where the Ministry of Justice was dissolved. However, the allocation to the ministry in the budget showed their priority regarding crime since it was one of the largest allocations. “But crime has continued to be a challenge, not only for this administration but the last two administrations. Basdeo said the last two months have been very difficult in the area of crime and the other issue was the decrease in the price of the country's main commodity earners—oil and gas.

Cuffie needs to improve articulateness 

Meanwhile, several ministers have remained out of the spotlight—MP for San Fernando East Randall Mitchell, who is the minister of Public Administration has barely been heard of, as well as Fitzgerald Hinds, Minister of Works and Infrastructure; Ancil Antoine, Minister of Public Utilities; and Dennis Moses, Minister of Foreign and Caricom Affairs. Communications Minister Maxie Cuffie has been designated a single spokesman to communicate with the population. In assessing Cuffie, political analyst Dr Winford James said he was giving it a go, but was not informing on many ministries and departments. 

“And further, it would be to the benefit of all if he improved his articulateness.” Asked what the Government was not doing that it should be doing, James said it seemed to be doing well enough since there was no big public outcry, no big demonstrations or no significant public agitation. “But this won’t last forever. They need to engage the public imagination with some huge innovative approach and/or some huge project that is defensible in the ongoing difficult circumstances.”He added that all ministers have the potential to do better, but far more information was needed on what they were doing, especially ministers whose portfolio has a high visibility, like Hinds, who needed some high visibility projects that would excite the public imagination.

Sagewan-Alli’s said appointing Cuffie to speak on behalf of the other ministers “is a far cry from the open and transparent governance promised on the campaign trail, especially since the minister is too often unable to respond with the necessary details to adequately explain things.”

She said while the former administration was guilty, certainly in the early days, of having too many conflicting voices, the new Government has basically muzzled ministers from communicating with the public which did not engender a sense of assurance that they could lead the country out of the current crisis.

Neophytes, OJT’s on the job

On whether the Cabinet has neophytes, James said while there were, there was no evidence that they were sycophants. Sagewan-Alli felt the Cabinet comprised more neophytes than experience. Referring to Rowley’s statements on the appointment of former Central Bank governor Jwala Rambarran that “it’s not an OJT,” she said the same could be said of some of his ministerial appointments. 

She said, “To explain this as the inclusion of youth in decision making is inadequate. “You see, youth without experience should not hold positions of CEOs but be understudies to the CEO so that they can acquire the necessary experience to one day take over. In this instance though, it is evident that many of these appointments are for cosmetic purpose.”

PMs will err, they are human 

Regarding inappropriate statements made by the PM, such as the “parents breeding monsters” and his back-tracking comments on the Raymond Tim-Kee matter, James said prime ministers will err at times. He said they were humans even though people tended to deify them. James said, “The trick is for them to keep reflecting, to recover quickly, and to be honest and forthright in correcting mistakes. The public will see the honesty. I thought he recovered nicely in the Tim-Kee matter. “But it is not prime ministerial to call children monsters, even if, in a fit of high emotion one might privately allow oneself to think they are.”

He said children are the product of domestic and social conditions and once they were definable as children, it was the duty of adult society to rehabilitate them, to take the high ground and do things to make them grow, and to adopt healthy approaches towards them. 

“Calling them names just won’t do. PM Rowley did not choose his words judiciously and one reason could be that he spoke off the cuff, not from a prepared speech.”

Asked how they dealt with these matters, James said Government has acted “with super cautiousness” as in the cases of Energy Minister Nicole Olivierre; “with protectiveness” in the case of Housing Minister Marlene MacDonald; “with reasonableness” in crime and “superficial toughness” in regards to school violence.

On the government’s quiet or conservative approach, the opposite to the last adminstration’s, James said the PNM Government was not a noisy bunch, “at least, not yet.”

He said the more persuasive reason may be that the parlous economic circumstances were hamstringing their ability to act decisively. 


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