Just when we most need our leaders to stand together and assume their joint responsibility for guiding T&T through the rough waters of an economic downturn, we get instead a fireworks display of cheap shots.
Hostile relations between a Dr Keith Rowley-led Government and the Governor of the Central Bank were always on the cards given the then Opposition PNM’s declared lack of confidence in governor Jwala Rambarran.
With a change of government and no change in the position of either government or governor, it was only a matter of time before the differences would explode with serious consequences for all.
Beneath the fireworks display, however—the confrontation which has been simmering since 2014 and is now erupting in full public view—is yet another example of the institutional anomaly that defines our dysfunctional governance system.
If we’re not careful here, we could easily end up in another constitutional crisis of the kind that broke out between prime minister Patrick Manning and house speaker Occah Seapaul in 1995 and later between PM Basdeo Panday and president ANR Robinson.
Despite our many assertions of institutional independence, the hard reality is that the entire system is the creature of the government which, in our case, boils down to whichever Prime Minister is in office. This is the true meaning of the politics of maximum leadership.
In appointing the Central Bank Governor, the President acts as no more than the government’s functionary in carrying out the government’s decision to appoint.
This has always been so and it was still so in July 2012 when then prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar announced the appointment of Jwala Rambarran at the end of a two-day cabinet retreat in Tobago: “I am very pleased to announce that the Cabinet of the Republic has made the decision to appoint Mr Jwala Rambarran, financial economist, as the Governor of the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago.”
Contacted by the media for an immediate response, Mr Rambarran acknowledged the political authority in his appointment: “Thank God, thank the Prime Minister and Cabinet for choosing me to be the next Central Bank Governor.”
If there is any value to the confrontation between the Government and the Governor, it is that it pierces yet another of our illusions about the nature of our power system.
The system works beautifully when all the parts are in political sync. When the parts are out of political alignment, as in the current case of a PP-selected Governor in a PNM administration, disharmony is inevitable unless one party agrees to conform to the wishes of the other.
Although the Governor-Government dispute has been exacerbated by certain personality issues, the problem goes far deeper than the merely personal. It is inherent in the nature of the system.
If, as a society, we openly faced the fact that the Central Bank Governor is a political appointee, then there would be no question that, like any other such appointee, he would serve or not, at the pleasure of the government.
If, however, we wish the appointment of the Central Bank Governor to be above party politics with the office-holder surviving changes of political administration, then the system should be changed. In this case, the Government should submit its nominee for parliamentary approval with input from the opposition and Independent bench.
Whatever the legal merits or demerits of the Governor’s position, including his declaration that he will be in office for the remaining 19 months of his term, neither the Central Bank nor the country is served by him getting into a war with the government or key sectors of the society.
Confidence, not law, being the decisive condition, Rambarran’s position as Governor will become untenable if he loses the trust of the government, the banking sector, the business sector, the trade unions and members of the public.
Last week, the dispute claimed its first casualties when the Governor went public with the names of businesses that had received the largest allocations of increasingly scarce foreign exchange over the past three years.
In contrast to the howls of protests from the business and banking sectors, the disclosure could not have been better calculated for winning him public support.
Stung by the banks’ continuing refusal to sell them comparably paltry sums of foreign exchange, the public welcomed the Governor’s figures as hard evidence of the banks’ discriminatory attitude in favour of big business.
Beyond the hurt, however, few are likely to support the idea of their own bank giving their confidential banking information to a third party, much less having that third party release it to the media without consultation or permission.
Outside of this drama lies the greater challenge of managing the economy through rough waters.
The responsibility lies squarely on the government to develop a social justice policy for sharing the burden of adjustment, including the allocation of foreign exchange. This is not a matter to be left to the market but to be guided by policy sensitive to the needs of all competing interests.
The second involves public education.
The huge foreign exchange allocation to big businesses is far more telling about the nature and structure of our foreign consumption patterns than about the businesses themselves.
Governor Rambarran was completely right in pointing out that “the insatiable demand for US dollars that exists in Trinidad and Tobago will always trump whatever distribution system is in place.”
Change will come only by changing the values that drive our taste patterns and determine our spending habits. No amount of naming and shaming will make a difference as long as we, the consumers, are willing to line up and buy.
What is needed is a massive consumer education programme designed to promote healthier eating, more thoughtful buying, greater planning, and better living.
This is where our leaders’ energies need to be focused. Not on cheap shots and cheap points.