by Peter Richards
PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, CMC – One year after it convincingly won the general election, the People’s Partnership government is beginning its second year in office on Tuesday amid allegations of corruption, a less than peaceful industrial climate and fears of a lack of dynamism in the Trinidad and Tobago economy.
But Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar, who has seen her ratings fall by 14 per cent since coming to office last year, has defended the first 12 months of the five-party coalition insisting “we have been able to change the tone of the national political and civic discourse from one that was combative and adversarial to one of conciliatory and understanding.
“We have done this by changing the paradigm of governance from one that speaks first and listens after, to one that consults with all citizens and stakeholders”.
Political scientist Professor Selwyn Ryan admits it will be difficult to judge the performance of the government “given the mercurial and dynamic nature of our political process” saying that over the past 12 months there has been a big picture and a set of small ones.
“In both cases, what was said about the proverbial curate’s egg applies. It is good in parts. The bigger picture, however, has fewer blemishes,” he said.
Among the blemishes, which the coalition has labelled “missteps”, include the controversial appointment and then removal of Reshmi Ramnarine, a 30 -year-old communications technician to the top post at the Security Intelligence Agency (SIA) that government ministers defended until media reports showed that she had falsified her qualifications.
“The Prime Minister, appearing testy in the face of media queries urged the country to ‘move on”, reported the Trinidad Express, which first broke the story.
“The Partnership clearly made a patent mess of deconstructing and reconstructing the intelligence systems,” Ryan said.
An opinion poll published on Sunday, said that the Ramnarine “scandal” is the “incident most likely to be cited as the lowest point of the Prime Minister’s one-year career”.
In addition, the government has been pushed on the back foot in dealing with a TT$40 million (US$6.6 million) state company contract linking a personal friend of the Prime Minister at whose family home she stayed before and after the May 24, 2010 general election.
The government has used the dismissal of Planning, Economic and Social Development Minister, Mary King, to indicate that it is not soft on the issue of corruption, even as the embattled former minister has gone to the Integrity Commission in a bid to clear her name.
“It is a very sad day for us and it has to be done,” Prime Minister Persad Bissessar acknowledged after meeting with President George Maxwell Richards on the King issue.
King was sent packing after the local media reported that questions had been raised as to whether she had breached the law when she failed to disclose her pecuniary and family interest in a software engineering company, Ixanos Ltd, which won a Government website development contract from her ministry last November.
The former minister is the corporate secretary on record and a joint shareholder with her husband Dr St Clair King of Ixanos.
The Sunday Express newspaper said that investigations into the award of the near TT$100,000 (US$16, 600) website development contract “found the minister failed to disclose her interest in the family-owned business, was present at the opening of the bids and was involved in the selection process of the four-member evaluation team which picked Ixanos”
But King, an executive member of the Global Organisation of Parliamentarians Against Corruption (GOPAC), has consistently denied all breaches insisting that the contract “awarded to her family company was open and transparent and did not “at all” represent a conflict of interest.
Moreover, she said, the Prime Minister was aware of the situation and that the necessary documents had been passed on to her. But in an immediate response to the newspaper article, the Prime Minister said that she only became aware of the situation “after the process had been completed”.
A 12-page advertorial of “the major achievements of the People’s Partnership administration” makes reference to a number of “positives”, including stronger anti-crime legislation, “promoting good governance, openness and transparency, sound economic management” as well as positioning the country to take advantage of the global economic environment.
But newspaper columnist and former president of the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago (LATT), Martin Daly, wrote that “what the Partnership touts is not likely to overcome my disappointment that its method of governance is as flawed as that of the (former prime minister Patrick) Manning PNM (People’s National Movement ) which preceded it.
“My disappointment doubles every time the Government is caught uncomfortably and unaccountably close to the cookie jar, or as I have dubbed it, the national cash register, and its spokesmen respond by saying the other side did it too,” Daly wrote in his Sunday newspaper column.
Makandal Daaga, the leader of the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC), which is a member of the five-member coalition, said he was concerned over the level of corruption in the country.
Speaking at the founding congress of the Movement of Social Justice (MSJ), another coalition partner, earlier this month, Dagga called on the government to jail those involved in corrupt activities.“In my whole 40, or 50, or 60 years, I have never heard so much corruption in my land as I have heard in this country over the last few days. I can’t understand why we cannot open our jail doors and pack them in.
“People are stealing money as if they have invented it; as if it is their right to thief. I tell my party over and over again what we are experiencing today here, is because of our failure to act when we should have acted to prevent this country from becoming the state it is today,” he said.
Daaga, who is the Cultural Ambassador to the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), later said his statement had been taken out of context.
But Ryan argues that the government “may have also believed that governance was easy and that they had the skills and competence to govern. They are now discovering that good governance requires hard work, and that though a small and semi-modern state, Trinidad was not easy to govern”.
The government’s insistence that it is not able to pay public servants more than five per cent wage increase has done little to ease the industrial climate here even though it has been able to sign an agreement with the powerful Public Service Association (PSA).
But other trade unions, including the powerful Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU) and the umbrella National Trade Union Center (NATUC), have already signalled their intention to fight for more than the five per cent increase and the next few months will put further strains on the local economy as the unions take to the streets in support of their demands.
In February, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said economic activity in the oil-rich country “remains weak” and that the near-term outlook is “affected by uncertainty”.
The IMF said notwithstanding the improving global conditions and the rebound in commodity prices, the twin-island republic has been hit hard by the global financial crisis.
However, the Washington-based financial institution has commended the authorities for the “continued prudent macroeconomic policies that helped mitigate the impact of external shocks.”
“They recognised that the immediate challenge is to restore confidence by providing a supportive policy mix and addressing remaining weaknesses in the financial system,” the IMF said.
Prime Minister Persad Bissessar said that despite the economic turmoil in Europe and other parts of the world, her administration had been able to “stabilize our economy and position it for sustainable growth through an emphasis on reduction in wasteful spending and fiscal prudence.
“The government has also engaged the local private sector and has placed this important group at the centre of economic development. These policies have begun to have effect and we have started to see a reduction in the rate of inflation, a return to economic growth and increasing investor confidence,” she said.
The main opposition PNM has announced plans to stage its own “first anniversary” of the government’s performance in power with a public rally on Tuesday.
In fact, the PNM is promising the People’s Partnership it will be “a long hot summer”.
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