Public Administration Minister Marlene McDonald was gleeful as early as 1.39 pm yesterday.
“Rest and Reflection?! My ministry had 98 per cent turnout! People put country first, yes. Nobody hold a gun to their head!” McDonald crowed.
Unions may disagree. But that’s familiar for the Rowley administration. Labour’s latest disagreement has made the Government’s lowest point—Petrotrin’s refinery closure decision—the official marker of its third term.
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, leading the charge in the matter, has taken a mid-term gamble testing a public already coping with an austerity-themed term. The economy may be stable, though sluggish and certain payments made, avenues pursued and public sector jobs retained. Whatever the fallout, Petrotrin’s issue, will—like all these—factor into PNM’s ongoing election-planning exercise.
After the first two years of blaming the PP administration and oil prices for T&T’s woes, Petrotrin’s problem has now been promoted as the third year threat to progress.
Statements, including by Planning Minister Camille Robinson-Regis, on the length of time the decision was looming (“many, many years”) confirm previous PNM administrations are as much to blame for it as anyone else.
Amid rumbling on the issue—in the week of Government’s third anniversary, Rowley increased outreach from “ground” meeting – in Marabella’s Petrotrin turf—to energy sector high levels.
After last Sunday’s blaming of OWTU for rapport failure on the refinery issue, Government sought to manage unions’ push dexterously – especially considering yesterday’s Rest and Reflection exercise.
Thursday’s meeting with labour saved Government face from accusations of not being open. But the administration stood ground on the closure decision since—apart from continuing Petrotrin losses—caving would have injured the bravery image Government has carefully cultivated on this particular task.
Government also pushed to be seen as empathising (with workers) and magnanimous (on separation packages). Rowley had acknowledged the task with “sadness and resolve…such is my lot” he’d sighed last Sunday.
How much PNM stocks gain from the move may be weighed in how separation matters are handled, length of unemployment post-closure and how soon restructured Petrotrin’s successful.
Government’s assured that Budgets 2019 and 2020—election packages—contain measures for “San Fernando and environs” to cushion the blow. Obviously geared for PNM’s Sando West and East constituencies, crucial in polls. Promise of jobs also comes with the drydocking facility agreement—in PNM’s La Brea seat.
Robinson-Regis stressed closure had to be done now. It remains to unfold whether time plus “the best” separation packages, concessions and the fact that North T&T is divorced from the Southern culture of Petrotrin, will erase what she admitted was a “bitter pill”. Though she deemed it the “best medicine”, it may be swallowed by more than just Marabella.
Her acknowledgement of the decision’s “far-reaching” implications and Rowley’s declaration of not being “in love with office” confirms recognition that the task has deepened Government’s political challenges.
Some PNMItes, worried about a “one-term Government” are monitoring members’ feelings on other issues. Campaigning for PNM’s upcoming executive elections will reveal concerns. More than half of Rowley’s 16-member slate—key posts from chairman down—is being challenged by some former frontliners. He starts campaigning in Arima tonight.
How much the Opposition depends on the Petrotrin issue for “default” support, as opposed to undertaking necessary internal and external strengthening, remains ahead. As an alternative, Opposition leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s leadership will come under heightened scrutiny as Rowley’s. Each side will be seen as strong if the other’s weak.
Regardless of messages sent—or stifled—in yesterday’s R&R, the opportunity to “speak” arrives in 24 months. What may arise for the PNM in its current mid-way position—how swing votes will lean— and what might rise for the Persad-Bissessar Opposition awaits.