I am relieved to learn that the Cabinet “retreat” in Tobago last weekend did not have, as a main item on its agenda: “Achievements of the not-so-new Government during its first six months in office.”
If it did, I would have screamed bloody murder. Not to add rape of the Treasury, because although I’ve never been to Hotel Magdalena, I should think it’s an expensive place.
It would have been sinful in the extreme for Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley to have spent a million dollars or more discussing “achievements” that are so sparse, he could have assembled his charges and colleagues to occupy some benches around the Savannah, sip coconut water—in the spirit of buying local—and comprehensively cover all successes, if there were any, in 15 minutes flat.
At least we were spared the hollow trumpeting, which is little comfort, really.
According to the PM, the Cabinet: “focused on financial management of the State’s affairs, the prioritising of projects and the treatment of the Government’s commitments, including arrears owed to public servants and other debtors.”
Hello, it’s about time—maybe even past time—that these issues are resolved one way or other.
True, they comprise an unfair burden imposed on the incoming Government last September; part of the pre-election extravagance of a regime that was prepared to mortgage the whole damn country in a bid to retain power.
Let’s be honest here: in early 2015, when the then Government agreed to settle with the Public Services Association (PSA) at a 15 percent increase in wages and allowances for the period 2011-2013, the price of oil had already declined to below US$50 a barrel.
The irrepressible Watson Duke, leader of the PSA, told public servants: “Go and buy a wheelbarrow!” He said they will need it to carry all the money they will get.
Other public sector workers—protective services, daily paid, health sector, etc—were all to benefit from the money-tree. Except that the PP Government never intended to pay the billions due to them before the election.
The same held true for contractors who conducted TT$1 billion-plus in projects to boost the PP’s election image.
And the ex-cane farmers, who are today marching for however many millions, forget that former Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar promised them that money on the campaign trail in May 2010 but delivered barely a fraction in 2015, on the eve of election.
However, Rowley and his colleagues knew of all these debts before the general election, even if the precise details may have been vague.
What nobody could have predicted was the collapse of oil prices, which went below US$30 a barrel and stayed depressed for such an extended period.
According to the PM, at the retreat, Finance Minister Colm Imbert apprised his colleagues of the country’s financial dilemma. Rowley said T&T was not bankrupt but it has a cash flow problem.
In other words, we are close to broke. We need to dip into our savings just to pay bills and meet our debts and other financial obligations.
What the Government has going for it is understanding and patience on the part of most of the population.
Public sector workers, for example, have not engaged in industrial action or other forms of protest. And even the impact of VAT—such as the restructuring on food prices and other essential consumer goods, which are being exploited by some rogue merchants—has not provoked outrage.
But the Government is testing people’s patience and tolerance to the limit.
Dr Rowley’s mettle is also being tested by issues relating to two ministers, Marlene McDonald and Camille Robinson-Regis.
In McDonald’s case, allegations of impropriety that date back to before the 2010 election, which seem to be supported by documents, have resurfaced to haunt her, and by extension, the PM.
It seems strange that the offences, if they can be so described, were unearthed during the tenure of the PP Government, but other than speak about them in Parliament, they did nothing.
Why? And why now?
The timing is curious. But if the allegations are supported by documentation, the PM should act and not hide behind the “bring the evidence” refrain.
In Ms Robinson’s case, she seems to take her responsibilities as a person in public life, a senior minister at that, lightly.
Really, why would anyone—except a business depositing the day’s or week’s sales or a criminal stashing his loot—walk into a bank with such a huge sum of money in cash?
Her transaction may well have been legal. But it looks bad. And that should never be for someone who values her integrity.
Dr Rowley and his ministers must understand that after the multiple sins of the PP regime, the population does not trust politicians.
Like Caesar’s wife—or maybe Mr Regis’s—they must manifestly be above suspicion.