Noble: The way out of our mess; what Espinet firing says of our political leadership

Shoshana Zuboff (2019) points to ‘the oldest political questions: Home or exile? Lord or subject? Master or slave? … eternal themes of knowledge, authority and power’. This week, with the firing of Wil Espinet, we are confronted with the same issues.

Saddened by the crime situation and having had to process the trauma that was Petrotrin, we are again plunged into grave uncertainty. As Martin Daly quipped, the stark choice is between ‘mooks and crooks’, but Michael Harris reminds us the choice should include ‘none of the above’.

Photo: Petrotrin chairman Wilfred Espinet (left).
(Copyright Trinidad Newsday)

Zuboff’s observation is crucial here. What do we want to be? We cannot all choose exile and we should not be either subject or slave. We must be masters of our fate and captains of our souls. Invictus!

The firing of Espinet is not different from the hiring of Conrad Enill as NGC Chairman; same khaki pants, different pockets. We have run out of ‘good people’, on both sides of the political fence, for various reasons.

Our energy sector, in this instance, is being trifled with and we are all complicit by our silence. Espinet, as a patriot, handled the ‘hot business potato’ but there were no guts to engage the political dimensions and the country. The business community smirked when Terrence Farrell was ‘forced out’ of the Economic Development Advisory Board. Spare us the handwringing now.

The first act, as executed by Espinet, is not the grand finale. The lenders, without any concerns for local sensibilities, will return to find a bunch of novices, in managerial and energy matters, running the ship. It will not be a pretty sight since they may have been blindsided by this intemperate action.

The trouble with virtuosos is that others believe it is easy to duplicate their acts. Both political sides have disrespected our credible energy and business professionals and now the engine of our economy is left to splutter.

Not voting, being silent or not volunteering are not solutions. Have we digested the WASA/NGC debacle in which we paid nearly all of $1.5bn on a failed wastewater project that sticks in the proverbial craw every day we pass on the Beetham highway? Or the cavalier, populist 14% $1.9bn giveaway to the unions when we had no money on the eve of the 2015 elections?

Photo: Then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (left) shakes hands with her successor, Dr Keith Rowley, en route to Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa.
(Courtesy News.Gov.TT)

Let us simply admit that we cannot leave this country to the hands of the politicians, whatever stripe or colour they are.

We have history on our side: the Point Lisas estate was built from an idea and the joint effort of the then Southern Chamber of Commerce and the Government. We had a guiding philosophy of planning to help us adapt and provided predictability as we built this country. The defining difference was leadership.

We can now choose to be like Nigeria, where self-preservation is preferred to national interest and become the epitome of ‘all that is corrupt, mediocre, insanely violent and morally untoward’ (Imhonopic and Ogochukwu, 2013) or be like Botswana ‘determined to prove the viability of the country’s independence … with an ethic of performance and good governance’ (Sebudubudu and Botlhomilwe, 2011).

Brady and Spence (2009), in reviewing the growth in 15 Asian countries with sustained high growth, pointed to politics and leadership and political economy (the interaction of economic and political forces and our choices) as the crucial ingredients.

Opportunity can be created by a crisis and the catalyst is leadership. A measure of predictability and a competent bureaucracy that is focused on the long-term well-being of the citizens are critical to sustained growth.

Is Jamaica better than us? They set up an Economic Programme Oversight Committee in 2013 to monitor and keep their politicians honest while the country is under the IMF agreement. This committee has 11 people from the private and public sectors and civil society.

Photo: Two spectators take a selfie during Trinidad and Tobago’s 2016 Independence Day Parade celebrations.
(Courtesy Chevaughn Christopher/Wired868)

They track the Government’s performance and assist in ensuring that the agreed targets are met and advise the public of any concerns or developments through traditional and digital media. The IMF lauded their performance in 2016: over 95% of the program conditions were met.

Will we step up to the plate? Who are our independent competent business leaders who will resist feeding off the government coffers for the good of our nation? Where are our civil society leaders who are not craven?

We cannot continue to ignore the mess we have created. We, the older generation, cannot wash our hands. We owe it to our young people to fix the burden we have foisted on them.

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