Trinidad and Tobago

Steelpan

Phillips abandons sinking soca boat

August 20, 2000

According to my thesaurus, the term "bail out" is really the most apt description of a plan recently announced by Culture Minister, Senator Daphne Phillips, to pay calypsonians $500,000 worth of prize money long overdue.

"Bail out", says the thesaurus, means to "jump out, abandon ship, eject or parachute" and the Minister certainly qualifies in every category, cloaking her desertion of the sinking soca boat in a dubious but colourful rescue initiative.

Phillips is, in fact, bailing out herself and not the Trinbago Unified Calypsonians Organisation (Tuco), as she so magnanimously suggested at last Tuesday's sitting of the Senate. It is her Carnival plan that has gone awryŚnot Tuco's.

Back in April 1997, when she proudly announced sweeping changes in the way the national festival was to be run thereafter, it was clear to me that the plan would fail. I repeatedly voiced and published my concerns, which were based largely on the dismal track record of Carnival's Special Interest Groups (Sigs) at delivering large-scale public entertainment projects.

In a transparent attack on my professional integrity, Senator Phillips described me publicly as "a doomsday prophet", only because a series of articles I produced identified several flaws in the plan, which was essentially a bold attempt to privatise Carnival under the guise of "allowing the Sigs greater autonomy".

At the time, the prediction that evoked her comment, made at a news conference held at the Ministry's boardroom in January of 1998, was: "By the turn of the century, some one of these groups will probably end up owing $500,000."

Well, doomsday has evidently arrived. And now that the split has hit the fan, the Culture Minister is seeking to distance herself from Tuco (as she has repeatedly done with Pan Trinbago and for the same reason), implying that the Sigs cannot manage their financial affairs.

Fact is, her privatisation plan never went well. What exacerbated the problem this year was the implementation of a hare-brained scheme, hatched by her National Carnival Commission (NCC) to jointly solicit sponsorship, then divide the spoils equally between the Sigs and the Commission. Pan Trinbago pulled out of the foursome early and went solo.

Just ten days before the climax of this year's festival, Tuco, the National Carnival Bands Association (Ncba) and the NCC held a news conference to beg the media to prevail upon tardy sponsors to deliver. Not one cent resulted.

But because of the clandestine and conspiratorial way in which the privatisation plan was hatched (indeed to the exclusion of then chairman, Roy Augustus and certain other members of the Board), the Sigs have often been forced to put their tails between their legs and defer to the trusted ringleader.

But if they are now to share any opprobrium for the obvious collapse of Phillips's Carnival privatisation plan, it must only be on account of their gullibility. To secure agreement from the Sigs, the Minister repeatedly assured them that whatever revenue they generated in excess of the Government's annual subventions, would accrue to their individual accounts.

And they fell for that.

Carnival accounting has always been practised on the basis of deficit budgeting. It seemed to me, therefore, that the promise was no more than a decaying carrot, proffered to alleviate the pain that would inevitably come, when the backlash came from the short end of the stick.

With equal enthusiasm, the Sigs also accepted a crippling proviso: that the Government's subventions would be reduced annually by around 20 per cent, so that by the year 2002, the State would have no financial input into what is ironically called The National Festival.

Indeed, Phillips must have realised from as early as the Carnival of 1998, that her plan to induce self-reliance among the Sigs by 2002 through that route had assumed far too much. The sequential 20 per cent reductions were simply never implemented. From as early as the first Carnival of "greater autonomy", every group was hopelessly broke.

Yet, up to the week before Carnival that year, every time I asked Madame Minister what would happen if the Sigs lost money, I was ridiculed, eventually to the point of hostility. "We have seen the projections," she said sternly on more than one occasion, "and they will not fail."

But hello-oh! They have failed!

During the tea-break at a Tuco general council meeting held last June, I interviewed president Seadly "Penguin" Joseph. He said the council concluded that Tuco's money woes resulted directly from broken promises on the part of the NCC and the Ministry.

The Sunday Express having published that story, the Culture Ministry and the NCC prevailed upon Penguin to issue a retraction the following day.

With the promise of a grant to cover the boggling $500,000 deficit hanging over Tuco's head, Penguin dispatched the press release as instructed, saying that Tuco did not identify any single cause as the primary source of its problems. As it happened, in its post-tea session, the meeting had also taken a decision to withhold such information from the media. Quite unfortunately, my story had already gone to press.

Cut even before that time, Penguin had held a meeting with Phillips, pointing out the crucial state of Tuco's fiscal affairs. According to him, the Minister advised that Tuco postpone its prize-giving function, while she identified funds to fill the gap. She warned that if the money was not available by the scheduled date of the payout, she would not attend. The cash wasn't and she didn't.

For the Culture Minister to now imply that she only recognised the extent of the problem after reading the newspapers last weekend, is to remind us that she only knew about the paving of the Savannah, when she chanced a glance through her office window.

For her to also decide that the Ministry will disburse the cheques, is only intended to leave the public with the view that Tuco handled its initial $3.5 million so badly, that it could not be trusted with any more money. In lieu, we will no doubt be treated to her image as calypso's fairy godmother.

In addition, the Minister said the money will come out of next year's allocation, a most curious statement to make before the 2001 national budget is even debated. What this means, however, is that before the next Carnival season even starts, Tuco is already $500,000 in the red.

In the circumstances, history has little choice but to repeat itself.


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