Election season is silly season. The reality of Tobago, economic and otherwise, is a far cry from the fantasies being peddled by both the PNM and PDP and so it is really interesting to hear the candidates on the political hustings as the momentum builds for THA Election Day on December 6. The past weeks have been quite an eye-opener as the political promises keep rolling in.
First, we had PNM candidate for Bon Accord/Crown Point Clarence Jacob coming under heavy criticism for claims regarding the distribution of ‘hundreds’ of signed blank CCTP “food card” forms. Jacob also blamed PDP assemblywoman Zorisha Hackett for allegedly approving undeserving persons for food cards. The mass distribution of food cards and hampers during an election seems to have now become a necessary evil, especially in this time of a pandemic. If indeed blank forms approving those food cards were signed, such should be reported to the Fraud Squad, immediately. The accountability and management of food cards as raised by the Auditor General’s Report in 2019/20 remains pending.
Of concern to the recipients of these cards and hampers is whether or not they will continue to be beneficiaries after the elections, regardless of who wins. From my experience as MP, it is easier to get food cards and hampers during election time and this is why it is seen as a ‘bribe’ coming from the government of the day. After elections, it is back to the same old bureaucracy of delays and long processing times. Elections loosen the purse.
PDP political leader Watson Duke has promised that THA employees will receive an ex gratia payment for Christmas if he wins on December 6th. He said they would find the money. He also promised $10 million annually to every electoral district to deal with unemployment. This reminded me of the plan by the former People’s Partnership government, of which I was a part, where a $10 million constituency fund was proposed by then Minister of Planning Bhoe Tewarie and included in our Local Government Reform Bill. This was a very good plan, since this fund would have helped with minor infrastructural projects in every constituency. As such, it is a good plan from the PDP but with a struggling economy, it will be very hard to find $150 million for this unemployment fund.
Tobago PNM Council leader Tracy Davidson-Celestine has promised 3,000 jobs, distribution of 2,000 lots of land in four years and the creation of a division of IT to assist the THA in going paperless. Details of the Public-Private Partnerships to create these jobs are not in the public domain except for the Tobago Marriott Project.
Chief Secretary Ancil Dennis received $50 million three weeks before the elections to assist hoteliers and displaced workers. The accommodation sector will receive $15 million. Five million is earmarked for small and medium businesses, $10 million to TTAL to be used for digitisation of businesses in the sector and the remaining $20 million is for displaced workers within the tourism sector who are to receive a one-time grant of $5,000. All of this cash is to be disbursed just before the December 6th elections.
With a population of less than 70,000 and the THA employing 60% of the workforce within a contracted economy due to the pandemic, Moody’s Investors Service has given the THA a negative outlook rating and long term rating of Ba1, based on limited economic diversification, very low own-source revenue and weaknesses in reporting of financial statements as challenges to the THA’s credit profile. The THA has a $250 million overdraft which is being used quite frequently to bridge the gap between central government disbursements. In 2019, the Ministry of Finance gave the THA the green light to borrow money, up to $300 million, for developmental projects. The problem is that while they can now borrow, their negative credit rating diminishes their power to do so.
I have not heard any candidate from any of the parties contesting the THA elections seriously speak about a more independent Tobago. They have each accused the other of not wanting it. Neither party has properly proposed a plan for it though. Davidson-Celestine has gone on record to accuse Duke of wanting secession but not really supporting internal self-government either.
The reality is that in a poll conducted by the Parliament, 70% of Trinbagonians want Tobago to manage and run its affairs and they want them to develop their economy to generate its own revenues, to make their own laws inter alia while keeping the unitary state that is Trinidad and Tobago. Watson Duke’s dream of secession is a fantasy now since it will take many long years to get there. What is possible now is internal self-government. Hopefully, after this election, the new THA will get serious about real governance and demand that the process for greater autonomy for Tobago begins in the Parliament with both Government and Opposition supporting the Tobago self-government bills.
I have faith in my Tobago brothers and sisters. They know who will serve them best and they know how to distinguish between reality and fantasy.