The political leader of the PNM and his heir apparent have over 60 years of parliamentary and ministerial experience between them. The leader of the UNC and its presumptive heir, 51 years of political experience. They have all been in government and opposition. Both political leaders deposed their predecessors and know how to survive internecine political strife, including killing off potential successors. They are all experienced debaters, know the ropes and where the bones are buried. Therefore, why is this political season characterised by such emptiness?
All the reasons for describing election seasons as “silly” are on display. Daily, citizens are fed a diet of wild accusations, fanciful and unachievable promises, generous servings of rhetoric and race, fear mongering, and usual claims of agendas, conspiracy, threats and enemies, in the press or business organisations. The opinion polls as published in the Guardian suggest that there is a growing body of electors who are indifferent between the major parties, particularly amongst the more youthful (20-45) segment. Perhaps that is why the platform talk is trending to a new low?
Incumbency brings certain inherent powerful advantages. First, it allows the ruling party to determine the election date and with this fore knowledge, the advantage of preparation. Second, it allows the incumbent to schedule its “good news programme,” like the BHP/ NGC gas contract and the Ruby field development. Third, the incumbent will arrange the ribbon cutting ceremonies for newly “completed” projects like the Curepe Interchange, the Moruga agro-processing plant or the Couva Children’s Hospital. All political parties play this game. Fourth, the incumbent should have a clear understanding of the current challenges and the administration’s capacity to address the issues.
It is therefore surprising that the ruling party has yet to make a comprehensive statement of its stewardship and its plans for the country if it is to be elected for another five years. A few trial balloons have been floated by the PNM’s PR machine in the electronic media. These have included the claim that the incumbents have stabilised the economy, built the Curepe Interchange and several hospitals, appointed a “permanent” commissioner of police and managed the COVID-19 crisis.
Except that the economy is anything but stable. It has declined for five consecutive years and COVID has made a bad situation worse. Whilst the “new” commissioner is highly visible and argumentative (with the press, the National Security Minister, the Health Minister etc) violent crime has not decreased and the number of police shootings have increased rapidly with no fall in gang activity. The health care system has not improved, and the new cases are evidence that COVID-19 has not been contained.
COVID-19 has made the international energy markets, on which T&T depends, more competitive and volatile. It is the single biggest economic and social crisis that T&T has faced and has further complicated the development model pursued by successive governments. Weak or no growth translates into increased unemployment, rising public debt and sustained pressure on the country’s reserves. The finance minister has pointed to the substantial fiscal buffers provided by the country’s external reserves and the HSF to aid in the maintenance of short-term economic stability. But these are only short-term buffers as pointed out by the IDB in its latest Caribbean Quarterly bulletin.
Informal platform talk must be buttressed by a firm approach to the business of leading T&T out of this whirlpool. It requires a clear policy articulation and identification of priorities to guide the tight budgeting environment. It is not enough to say that we need to do more with less. We must also identify where those efficiencies will come from and the governing bureaucracy must be held accountable for specific, measurable, time-bounded goals. In the ten days left to the election, the power of incumbency seems not to have worked to the PNM’s advantage, even though the Recovery Committee’s recommendations have long been presented.
Whilst the PNM ideas remain uncodified, unpublished and unbranded, the UNC’s plans have been described as “questionable and improbable.” How is the country to be led out of this impasse and on what basis can we choose between the two parties whose leaders continue to look at the rear-view mirror, preoccupied with who is more credible or who thief more?
For the last 20 years, T&T has been attempting to engage with the electronic revolution, the bedrock of the new globalised interconnected world. Yet, despite all the efforts to make tax payments electronic, T&T ranks 106th in the world in its capacity for citizens to pay its taxes. Transformation requires a whole of government approach not a new ministry.
To advance, T&T must enhance the ease of doing business, improve public sector governance, mobilise and engage the private sector, and streamline government operations and expenditures in a quest for efficiency. What are the priorities and the resource gaps? Who are we putting in the critical ministries to deliver and what is their delivery track record and experience? Instead, we have a “beauty” contest devoid of “beauties”.