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Raffique Shah


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Governing the ungovernable

By Raffique Shah
September 8, 2013

Rather than re-shuffle her Cabinet for a third time in three years, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar should have considered resigning and calling fresh general elections.

By an annual tinkering with her appointees and their portfolios, the PM has all but admitted she is incapable of leading the country, which, really, is nothing to be ashamed of. The great Eric Williams often complained this country was ungovernable. It still is.

In the face of seemingly intractable problems—a crime epidemic, rampant corruption, lawlessness—the PM simply does not measure up. I hasten to add I cannot think of anyone else who stands out as being capable of leading us out of the abyss, although many are offering themselves. For the country's sake, I wish them well.

But having the decency to resign and call fresh elections—some might say stupidity—is hardly the hallmark of politicians anywhere.

For all his shortcomings, Patrick Manning did it twice, but lost on both occasions. I do not recall the precise circumstances that triggered the 1995 election a year before it was due. I think there were rumblings in the ranks of his Government, and there was an issue with House Speaker Occah Seapaul bucking the PNM, which Manning handled badly by putting her under house arrest.

Anyway, he called elections and lost his majority with the memorable 17-17-2 results that saw Ray Robinson throw his two Tobago seats with Basdeo Panday to give the latter his first lien on power. Manning would do a repeat performance in 2010, this time bowing to public pressure over some very stupid things he did, and losing badly to the People's Partnership.

Panday, too, facing a rebellion in his ranks in the aftermath of the 2000 elections, returned to the polls in 2001, which resulted in the historic 18-18 tie, following which Robinson named Manning Prime Minister.

Except for Manning in 2007, politicians in this country have always ignored public opinion or their own failings, clinging to power until the last hour, until they are routed from office the way George Chambers was in 1986 (33-3) or Robinson in 1991 (winning only two seats).

In this instance, Persad-Bissessar has exhibited extremely poor judgment in selecting many of her ministers (and sundry other appointees), hence the need, as she saw it, for repeated “realignments”.

Playing musical chairs with as critical a ministry as National Security, more so in the face of runaway crime, is a sad indictment of her leadership. Four ministers in as many years must be a world record of sorts.

In appointing Captain Gary Griffith to the post, she said what is needed is someone with a military background. But she had that before: John Sandy was a retired brigadier who had some 40 years of military experience, someone who held command positions far higher than Griffith did.

Yet she removed him after only one year to put Jack Warner, who, if we believe the police, was the best minister ever. Matters not that the crime spiral continued under his watch, much the way it has done for more than a decade—short respites punctuating long, murderous binges. The police, and, I guess, members of the other services, liked Warner because he pampered them, pandering to their every wish.

His “success” had nothing to do with reining in crime, although he now speaks of a hundred initiatives he had recom­mended that Cabinet failed to support or implement. If we are honest in appraising reasons for the crime epidemic, we must conclude the police, or significant elements in the service, are very much part of the problem. If he does not already know it, “action man” Griffith will soon face this humongous institutional obstacle that all his predecessors did.

Another aspect to the PM's latest re-shuffle that I find puzzling is that it came on the eve of the presentation of the 2013-2014 budget. Debate on the Appropriation Bill will begin within a week of the new ministers familiarising themselves with their new ministries. Clearly, they will not be able to make informed contributions on matters relating to their portfolios—unless they parrot briefs prepared for them by public servants.

In a related issue, stakeholders in the tourism sector lamented the change in line ministers just when Stephen Cadiz was getting to understand issues they face and was about to implement measures to boost the sector.

The PM also made some rather strange statements about a “new era of my Government”, about a “lift-off”. If it has taken her three years to “lift off”, when, pray, do we see the flight? I think what we are witnessing are the desperate actions of a drowning Government.

But it would have been so much more honourable to have faced fresh elections and lost. Manning returned from the dead. Chambers and Robinson did not. Therein lies a lesson for those who are brave enough to venture to govern this ungovernable country.

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