by Ralph Maraj
She started tamely but as she warmed into her response, Kamla Persad-Bissessar gripped your attention in the 2017 budget debate, speaking with passion and conviction, often moving away from the script, adding and ad-libbing, going in-depth and providing detail, showing inner command of the material as she focused on key issues of national security, the economy and governance.
It was a convincing performance from the former prime minister as she tore into the Government, and for the first time since its defeat, you get the feeling the United National Congress is resurfacing. And it is because its leader is rising to the challenge, taking the fight to the Government, doing so with both calm and feistiness last Thursday, a persuasive performance that would inspire her team. Is this another turning point in the politics? Is Kamla coming back?
She made the wise decision to focus first on crime, subjecting it to elaborate examination early in her address, highlighting the generally accepted view the Government had failed abysmally in this area. With this strategy, she laid the foundation for plausibility as she pointed out murders are now heading to 500 since this Government took office, then highlighted national security promises made in the last budget on which there was no progress, including the Police Management Agency, the appointment of a police commissioner, the Joint Border Protection Agency, the Police Service Inspectorate, community safety partnerships, re-engineering the criminal justice system and strengthening prison management whilst pointing out her administration established the National Operations Centre, the National Security Training Academy, the Rapid Response Unit, the Highway Patrol Unit, the Community Comfort Patrols, 13 surveillance bays on the nation’s highways; built eight police stations, provided 500 vehicles for the security forces, bought four coastal patrol vessels, two utility vessels, and 12 Damien vessels and approved the purchase of body scanners and cellphone jammers for the prisons. Kamla also pointed out that whilst her government had passed 26 pieces of legislation on crime, the Rowley administration, after an entire year, had passed only the SSA bill, yet not proclaimed.
On the economy, reminding her audience that during her administration the country enjoyed its highest revenue, highest foreign direct investment, highest GDP, highest foreign reserves and highest employment since Independence, Kamla underscored the economic stagnation of the past year, characterising the Government’s approach as “tax, borrow and spend”, pointing to debt increasing to 62 per cent of GDP, but nothing to show for it, contractors not settled, salary arrears still outstanding, no capital projects started. And seeking to debunk “PNM propaganda” her administration had wasted financial resources, Ms Persad-Bissessar, pointed out they had not spent $500 billion, but $285.3 billion in five years of which $42.3 billion was spent on wages and salaries, $148 billion on transfers and subsidies, and $37 billion on goods and services. They spent $17.6 billion on capital development, with “much to show for it including schools, laptops, hospitals, houses, highways, drains, dredged water courses, access roads, police and fire stations, a new university campus, community centres, cycling velodrome, aquatic centre, national tennis complex, multi-purpose sport and indoor facilities.” But, echoing the view of most analysts, Kamla pointed to economic contraction and unemployment for the past year, with 20,000 jobs lost and a dated approach to diversification that completely ignores “the fourth industrial revolution” the focus of the World Economic Forum at Davos this year.
But the most dramatic aspect of her response came when Ms Persad-Bissessar pointed to the possibility of collusion and cronyism involving Government officials and leading private sector individuals and organisations in the proposed sale of the “family jewels”, Trinidad and Tobago NGL and First Citizens Holdings Ltd, the Opposition Leader warning the “patrimony of the people” could end up in the hands of an “ultra elite” in Trinidad and Tobago. Government spin twins, Imbert and Al-Rawi, attempted unconvincing refutations of the charge and the Opposition Leader called on the Prime Minister for investigations since the facilitator is a “very high Government official”; she also demanded postponement of the sale until reformed procurement is the law.
Well! The more things change, the more they remain the same. In opposition the PNM thundered ceaselessly for five years about UNC financiers “raping the treasury”, and promised transparency and accountability, if elected. But after an entire year, new procurement legislation remains unproclaimed and not a single step has been taken towards campaign finance legislation! Why? Has the Government been creating space for its own financiers to “rape the treasury” as reward for their investment in the campaign that brought the PNM to power?
The political and business classes continue their incestuous relationships to the detriment of the masses, who for vicarious identification with power, vote for their tribe, and then turn a blind eye as the nation’s resources are plundered, billions flowing illicitly into the pockets of businessmen and politicians, whilst the people are denied better living conditions and children are cheated of a future. The sad thing is that, like the vast majority of people, most politicians come from the ground level, yet almost all forget their roots, succumbing to the enticements of power, either turning a blind eye, satisfied with the prestige, pay and perks, or as in a great many cases, becoming corrupted by the lure of ill-gotten wealth, thus yielding power and influence to the few at the expense of the many.
Will things ever change in this country? Will we ever have “morality in public affairs”? The budget response of the Opposition Leader was potent in detail and depth and courageous in challenging possible collusion among business elites and their new political minions. Is there a sign of something here, a turning point perhaps? Is Kamla returning, renewed?
October 9, 2016