All elections revolve around the question, “Why should you support us and not the other party?” Even when voters do not watch the broadcasts, they pay attention to the commentary generated in the search for some meaning. PR experts use slogans in political campaigns to capture attention. A slogan’s success depends on how efficiently it helps voters explain their preference, to others and to themselves. In this 2019 local government election the PNM is using “Getting the job done”, whilst the UNC’s slogan is “Worknation”.
But this is a local government election in name only. This is a platform for the 2020 election which will be earlier than legally required. Hence the theme “Getting the job done” suggesting that progress is being made on all fronts by the PNM. It is zippy. As policy, it is empty. What are the achievements either at the local or central government levels?
If there were serious developments we ought to have heard about them. Instead the Planning Minister’s invoked St. Michael’s protection touting the use of a cocoyea broom to sweep away evil spirits. A fine example of 21st century nation building! Not to be out done, Mr. Imbert wondered if Dr. Rowley was in his “right mind” to appoint him Finance Minister. Not mad, desperate; there was no one with relevant experience in cabinet, so Dr. Rowley gave the job to a rival who could be sacrificed if things went wrong.
But these are distractions, political entertainment. In the process, closure of the Yara plant and its implications for the petrochemical sector were bypassed. All business will experience challenges and it is important to understand when your time has passed. After 16 months of negotiation, Yara announced that there was no prospect of arriving at an economic gas price. If Yara was inefficient how does the country ensure that other plants reinvest to remain competitive?
The future of the petrochemical sector is an uncomfortable challenge. Newer plants are being built where gas is cheaper and more plentiful. T&T’s natural gas production is insufficient to meet existing capacity and production will decline in 2020 and 2021 before it gets better in late 2022. Further complicating matters, petrochemical prices have also declined. The T&T natural gas model may work in those countries with cheaper and more plentiful gas like Ghana. That model can no longer work for T&T.
In short, the economy will be in serious difficulty over the next two years before the new finds/ projects come on stream, if they are commercially viable. “Getting it done” should mean a focused and inclusive adjustment process that is transparent, in the line with the 2015 campaign manifesto “let’s do this together”. It does not.
Governments are responsible for “public goods” like education, heath care, security, rule of law, and other mundane deliverables like passports and pensions, the very institutions that are the epitome of inefficiency.
A colleague’s experience is instructive. Her passport expired in October 2019. Calling the passport office, she was given an appointment for March 20th, 2020 and told that the passport would be ready in May 2020. Alternatively, she could get a January appointment in Tobago. In 2017, she went with her mother into San Fernando General and had to wait from 8 am to about 10 pm to be warded. Transferred to Mt. Hope, her mother spent 2 days in an A&E corridor. Subsequently diagnosed with cancer, it took 2 weeks to get a referral letter to St James. In St James, she was told her files were were lost. On her fourth visit, she was given one month’s supply of drugs and then no more drugs were available. Needless to say, her mother died.
Building four new hospitals will not improve health care anymore than a new immigration building improved the delivery of passports. The hospitals will not fare better than the Couva hospital, which is not operational, 4 years after it was opened. Neither will digitizing thousands of documents in the Planning Ministry improve either the planning process, or the speed of construction approvals.
Political argument is being supplanted by robber talk and mendacious fallacies on the platform taking few political risks whilst pretending to be the elector’s friend. As a society we need to talk and to engage with those whom we disagree politically. There needs to be problem-solving by people who hold views different from their own. Debating, like voting, allows people to disagree without descending into name-calling or using force.
Only civil dialogue can sustain a healthy democracy; it is high time that it is placed at the center of our politics. That requires leadership, not bribery in the form of free water tanks, or platform rhetoric as our primary political currency.