PM has to be held to account on ongoing basis

 

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Category: Trinidad Politics 04 Mar 12

 

To borrow a line from the Evita musical “dice are rolling and the knives are out.” As I write on Thursday the country has taken on the air of campaigning with public meetings, and high political Kamla vs Keith drama dubbed variously as the “raging bull vs the matador” and “bombshell vs bombshell.”

In the past two columns in a wide ranging interview Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar appeared to be the puppeteer rather than the puppet, with a steely grip on her party and government. She however repeatedly admitted that her government has fallen short on communicating to the people leaving the door wide open for criticism.

Last week, fast on the heels of the no-confidence motion filed by Opposition Leader Keith Rowley on February 17th the Prime Minister, in meetings up and down the country, dismissed the motion reporting to the people on the economy (“stable on the path to growth with inflation and unemployment down”) on infrastructure (“upgraded”) on pension (“raised to $3000”) on housing (“4,500 homes constructed”) and performance.

She has had, to all appearances, the full backing of her 28 government MPs, including Jack Warner, who despite recent rumours of a rift, has stated—Bible in hand—in a public meeting that ‘till death do they part’. If a no-confidence motion is passed the PM has 7 days to resign after which the President can appoint a member of the house who commands the majority or declare a fresh general election.

None of this is likely to happen. In an exclusive interview last week Wednesday Dr Rowley told me he himself did not expect the Kamla Persad-Bissessar led PP government to topple nor did he expect the Prime Minister to make the same mistake as his former leader Patrick Manning by calling an early election.

How is your leadership style different to that of your former leader Patrick Manning? I am a great delegator. People work with and not for me. I don’t want the leader to be the sole voice of the party but the party to be reflected in the leaders’ voice. I encourage a wide expression of views from the PNM who are all free to speak on behalf of the party. It doesn’t always appear that you have the support of your party.

I have no concerns about my leadership in the PNM. I have the comfortable support of the vast majority of PNM members and supporters. I have been there since June 2010. I was elected unopposed at a PNM convention. The executive has been fully supportive of my stewardship and assignment. It is my trust that we are singing from the same hymn sheet and when that doesn’t happen, well we are a democratic party.

What have you learned from the mistakes from your own party and particularly from former PM Patrick Manning? The biggest mistake is to allow the party to be subordinate to the leader. That is trouble because office holders easily immerse themselves in self-importance, in hubris. I was exposed to it, am cognisant of it, and that’s why you need people around you that are not afraid. They begin to do things that are unreasonable, senseless, and detrimental to the country.

I presume you are speaking of Mr Manning

Yes he was the leader. Your “no confidence’ motion has been dubbed by Dr Roodal Moonilal as ‘ill-timed, ill-conceived and dead on arrival.’ You always knew you could not win. It was always 29 against 12. Why now? Have you read it? The motion says an ‘unending series of events’ have demonstrated ‘the PM’s gross incompetence’ and a ‘persistent confusion and encouragement of wrongdoing in the conduct of the national affairs.’ There is a pattern. This is no longer a new government. Here we are, some 20 months on, one third of a term, almost 40 percent of a 60 month term over. We didn’t go for their throats in six months, or one year.

No. We didn’t do that. Now that we have given them a chance to create their own record, we are forcing them to examine what they are calling ‘missteps’ which is in fact deliberate wrongdoing which they only acknowledge when they are caught out. This is our chance to ask the questions on behalf of the people. If the government satisfies the population that there is no merit in our vote of no confidence, we simply did our job.

When you were sworn in as opposition leader you were heard wishing it was as PM. Were you hoping this motion of no confidence in the current PM will take you there?

When the next general election is called the PNM will be in a position to present itself as a credible alternative, and it is our expectation that the majority of citizens will choose us as against an offer to let the PP continue. As leader of the PNM I am preparing my party to win. A CNC3 poll up to 89 percent of respondents said you should resign if your motion of no confidence fails as it undoubtedly will. Is this political suicide? Are you hoping for a snap election?

There is no question of my resignation. If you look at history, the ‘motion of no confidence’ is commonplace. In a normal debate one cannot raise the conduct of the PM. It’s an opportunity to call the government to account if truth is allowed to prevail I don’t pay attention to polls as I am reliably informed they are being manipulated by respondents on the government payroll, given phones and cards and assigned to call to stations. We are not relying on the votes in the parliament or a snap election because 29 MPs will obviously vote for self preservation. I am more concerned by the 1.4 million people involved and their opinion at the end of the debate.

I am not worried about my career. I am troubled at the state of the country. I am the opposition leader.

I’ve taken a paid job and an oath to act without fear or favour. The government doesn’t like it but the vast majority of decent citizens deserve this. It is for the government to dissuade people from believing what I have said.

Many say the PNM accusing the PP of corruption is the pot calling the kettle black. Does the PNM have that moral authority? I am the first to say that you will see a grave similarity between the corruption that caused the PNM government to fail and what this government is offering as a replacement. The very same Prime Ministerial actions—unaccountability in state enterprises which allowed Udecott to grow into a cancer contributed to the PNM’s demise and breathed life into the PP—are being repeated. Everyone wanted change. Did the population just get a different person to do the same thing as before?

I was on the committee of BWIA when it was bankrupt and bleeding. Experts reviewed it and when they reported that flying to London was a ‘no go’ if you are going to stop the losses at BWIA so we sold the gates. The decision Caribbean Airlines to get into long haul flights into Europe was surprising. When the PM was confronted with a public spat between the Minister of Works and the chairman of a public enterprise, the runaway Caribbean Airlines, she chose to bury it and in fact removed the transport folio from Jack Warner the minister who advised her to take the matter to the Integrity Commission.

You see how similar it is? In 08 the previous PNM government, after a confrontation, dismissed a government minister over allegations of corruption. In 2011 a minister complains of a conflict of interest on the part of a chairman. Whose side does the PM take? Did the Parliament know there was a report from the minister about conflict of interest, referred to the integrity commission? The PM says this motion of no confidence is frivolous and vexatious. Not to the people.

The Mary King experience is another example. The conflict of interest was raised with the PM. She did nothing and sent it to the AG who reviewed it with the knowledge of the PM. It was only when the Express broke the story that Mary King had to go as part of political damage control. I am the Opposition Leader and my job is to ensure there are checks and balances in a democracy. I am just doing my job.

Others say you will simply succeed in making the PM more popular.

Being PM is not a popularity contest. It’s about discharging your responsibility, of increasing quality of life, of the protection of institutions. Citizens are relying on that. The government is in denial on the state of the country. Instead of governing, it continues to fight the 2012 general election. You can see that with the number of public meetings and the ads after the vote of no confidence was brought up. If she was not fazed why did she campaign and advertise for three days straight before the vote? 

There are a lot of people who support the Prime Minister. But I want to ask them if they are prepared to support the matters I am raising. They will say ‘who I support’ and ‘what I support’ is not the same thing. It is important to bring her to task for her failure to deal with the conflict of issues raised by the former minister of transport Jack Warner over Caribbean Airlines. Instead of dealing with it, taking it to the Integrity Commission as he suggested, she took away his transport portfolio.

How can she now have the moral authority to discipline any other minister who is falling short, who can say ‘What are you talking about? We are all in the same boat.’It’s important for the PM to retain the moral high ground, to be called to account. When that is lost then ministers feel free to carry on their own areas of jollifications.

What jollifications?

It’s a question of the PMs conduct mirroring itself down the ladder from T&TEC and the award of contracts by persons subject to ongoing police investigations, unchallenged preferential treatment to fly by night companies, bid rigging at NP, hiring a telephone operator, one Reshmi Ramnarine to head the nation’s Security Intelligence Agency—until the story broke in the press and she was forced to accept her “resignation”—down to the security guard at the airport. 

That’s why it’s important that the PM sets the tone. We need her to answer questions on deceiving the population with respect to pensions, calling a state of emergency to deal with street crime in the absence of the Police Commissioner who proceeds to direct his men to pick up people, arrest them, charge them, and release them, admitting there was no evidence. There were never consequences for that. Our institutions are weak. That is why the office of the PM has to be scrutinised.

What are you ultimately hoping to achieve with the vote of no confidence? I want to create better informed public that will pay attention to a value system that is not being operated in the public interest, a public not informed by gimmicky propaganda and advertising, an informed population which makes for a stronger democracy.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur