“You can look at several laws that have been passed over the years that made absolutely no difference,” said Minister of Communications and Public Administration Maxie Cuffie. “The integrity in public life act has not made us more honest. It has not dealt with corruption. And it is because we need more than laws to pass to effect change.
“What we need is to develop a culture that respects the law.”
Cuffie, the MP for La Horquetta/Talparo sat down with Wired868 for a wide-ranging interview on his role as a minister, government policy and the PNM’s term in office so far. This is Part Two:
Wired868: Housing is a big topic and, despite Asha Javeed’s investigative series for the Sunday Express, the Prime Minister has not suggested a change, from what I have seen so far, to a policy that allows ministers to essentially give a certain number of houses out as they please.
Do you see anything wrong with that when you have so many regular constituents—and it is must be the same all over—who genuinely want houses and qualify for them?
Cuffie: There is a housing policy that’s fairly well known. You can’t quote me on the formula. But there is a percentage set aside for the protective services, there is a percentage available by random draw, there’s a percentage available through your MP’s recommendation. So MPs’ recommendations have always been part of the thing.
Wired868: But isn’t that a bit loose in terms of how they qualify for it? We can understand positions of need but shouldn’t there be specific guidelines in terms of what is need and what isn’t?
Cuffie: You know in a perfect world there would be. I am a Member of Parliament I have people who are in need that come to me and there are people who worked with me… People come to my office seeking a recommendation to HDC, and I don’t get a chance to make many recommendations.
I have a database and I look through the names. I choose and sometimes it is not based on who registered first. Once I looked at who had the most children. So I went through the list and all those with five or six children. (Laughs) It is all (a matter of) when you get a chance you make a recommendation based on the needs of your constituents.
Wired868: When you saw Javeed’s story about ministers giving houses to relatives and journalists and so on. How did you feel about it?
Cuffie: Well, I was named in the last (article) and the unfortunate thing is she said in the story that I had gotten a house for my sister-in-law and she named my sister-in-law. My sister-in-law is still renting in Tunapuna. She has gotten no house. I can tell you where she rents and you can go check her there.
So I felt that was inaccurate and I don’t know where she got that information. So if I told her my sister-in-law didn’t get a house, I don’t know why she would still write that in the story.
But what I thought, (the story) would be hurtful to people who come (looking for HDC houses) and it is the most prevalent need in my constituency. People come and say, my name has been on the list for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. And overtime they say that, I say I know somebody who has been on the list longer than you. So that tells me it is a pressing thing.
When she did the story on the journalists, that wasn’t news to me. I know the names, I know who got. And some of the names I know who got, I didn’t see in the story. I was there and I know the circumstances under which people got.
Wired868: But what is to stop the PNM from doing the same thing if there are not specific rules to stop what went on before?
Cuffie: Because the PNM is a different organisation.
Wired868: Well then we are talking about personalities…
Wired868: So we are giving people the benefit of the doubt simply because it is the PNM and not the PP?
Cuffie: You think it is by accident that in the story they said that only two journalists got houses per year (under the PNM). I mean the PNM gave out the most houses. At that time, the PNM was giving out 6,000 houses per year; and (only) two journalists got houses. I think that in the normal cut and thrust, you can get two journalists getting houses (by that ratio).
It is because in the PNM when I became a Member of Parliament, certain things were told to me. One, I could not have any of my relatives as my office staff. So all the people who worked with me as my office staff. None are related to me or have any connection to me. And I could not have any relatives as my constituency staff.
So you see that thing with (Barry) Padarath and Kamla (Persad-Bissessar), I was told that could not happen.
So we have policies and an ethos. This is a party. It has rules and regulations and, most importantly, it has a culture. And you don’t break what is mandated easily. There are consequences for it…
Now as a political party, if you work hard and there are people who campaigned and they will expect to get favours. If I am faced with somebody who has worked hard and somebody who I don’t know from Adam. And I faced with two people to recommend. I will recommend the person I know. And I make no apology for saying that.
But having said that, it is difficult when you can’t get jobs for people who know you and you know well and they figure you are a government minister and you should be able to give them a bligh. But that is part of the thing.
Wired868: Although you speak about the “culture” of the PNM, the PNM has just fired its Housing Minister. Doesn’t that in itself show that there needs to be something stronger than moral persuasion to regulate the behaviour of ministers?
Cuffie: Or maybe it shows that there doesn’t to be. Now I am not even sure if it is true to say that she was fired…
Wired868: Well you are the Communications Minister, you should know…
Cuffie: Who is a minister and not a minister is the sole prerogative of the prime minister. I wasn’t in the room so I don’t know what transpired… But having said that, the PNM is an organisation and you go on the basis of the organisational culture that you have.
Wired868: So an unwritten “culture” is supposed to keep them in-line and stop them from staying morally?
Cuffie: All organisations are successful because of cultures and not because of laws. The United Kingdom doesn’t even have a constitution but there are codes and people know what to do when the time comes. And there are honour codes in different societies. Some things you don’t need a law to tell you what to do…
The PNM has a code, a culture and is a party. The UNC is not a party. The UNC doesn’t have elections. It doesn’t have meetings. It doesn’t have party groups. This evening I have to attend a PNM constituency group meeting. I have to submit reports. People question me. You don’t hear about UNC MPs having party group meetings or constituency group meetings. You don’t even hear about them having general council. They have elections once every three years or something but that is it.
The culture of the PNM is based on that whole organisational culture. When you go to general council, people ask hard questions of Dr (Keith) Rowley…
When there was the 18-18 tie, (ex-PNM prime minister) Patrick Manning met with (ex-UNC prime minister) Basdeo Panday and they had an agreement. Panday was able to say what was the UNC’s position on his own. Manning had to go to the general council and get support for a position before he could go to the meeting and after the meeting he had to report back to the general council. And that helped the PNM.
Because it was a party and he had to get support, his frame of reference was narrow. But Panday was sitting in a room where he could make any decision he wanted to make there and then. So because of the PNM structure where you had different people giving different ideas and how to approach it, I think that helped us in that negotiation.
Wired868: Even if I were to take at face value that the PNM culture was anti-corruption—which some news reports might contradict—governments have changed so regularly, should the PNM not put in a framework that will keep the next government in check, even if it isn’t the PNM?
Cuffie: In 2000, we passed the Integrity in Public Life act under the UNC. And the UNC was the most corrupt administration that we have seen. And at that time we had all the issues with corruption. It didn’t change anything.
Wired868: But you can say there is no teeth to a lot of these things. There is no enforcement…
Cuffie: At the time it was passed, it was found that it had teeth. You can look at several laws that have been passed over the years that made absolutely no difference. The Integrity in Public Life Act has not made us more honest. It has not dealt with corruption. And it is because we need more than laws to pass to effect change.
What we need is to develop a culture that respects the law. We need to install that culture regardless of the law you have. You think there is any law in Japan that says if you embarrass the government, you must resign? There is no law but they do it. And it is the same thing in the UK. It is part of the culture.
And we are trying. The Prime Minister has made a commitment to try to introduce a similar culture here.
Wired868: In terms of your three portfolios—as Minister of Communications, Public Administration and La Horquetta/Talparo MP—it is reasonable to expect someone to sufficiently handle all three? Added to that, you work in Port of Spain and you live in Port of Spain, so how is it practical?
Cuffie: Well it is a function of your ability to manage (and) your ability to delegate. And management is an art and a science as well. One man can run a whole organisation like Apple or Google. The best example is GM that is a diversified corporation that is in energy and vehicles. But it is run by one man.
So being a relatively small ministry and having three areas of responsibility pales in comparison. The main thing is you ability to manage and delegate and set goals and develop process to achieve them.
Wired868: Can you give an example of the things your constituency staff can do without your okay and the things you will have to give an okay for to give an example of this delegation?
Cuffie: Anything that requires spending of money I need to know because I spend the cheques. There are people who want to access government services. I don’t need to know who comes. They meet somebody and if they want a housing grant or a self-help project, they talk to somebody who fills out the form and the staff knows how to process you and the form goes to the relevant ministry without any input from me. Because that ministry will make the ultimate decision. I am just facilitating serving members of the public through my staff.
Anything that incurs expenditure, I get involved.
Wired868: What do you think of the tone of the government since taking office?
Cuffie: Well, you tell me. (Laughs) I don’t know. I am on the inside, so it is difficult to know how people perceive me too.
Wired868: I think “arrogant” might be one word I could use. Or a dismissive approach to concerns that people may feel have merit, whether we are talking about the budget or housing issues…
Cuffie: You know it is interesting that you say that. Because that is the brush that the Opposition has tried to paint us with. And they did it from the very first day. From the very first day, they started talking about the PNM as arrogant…
Wired868: Well, to be fair, it is has been something that has been associated with the PNM over the years…
Cuffie: And that’s it… We know they have always been corrupt and we painted them with that brush successfully. And they haven’t any evidence of corruption so they can’t latch on to that. But what they have they have gone back to is arrogance.
I will be surprised if you can give me instances of the Government’s arrogance. I talk to the media. I know some people say I am too cool and too humble…
One man’s arrogance is another man’s self-confidence. We have been here a long time and I think PNM people are more confident in government. I don’t see the arrogance.
Wired868: I will give you an example in terms of the new car for the Office of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister pointed to the car having bad shocks, he referred to it as a ‘vomit comet’ and suggested he would have no problem being in a donkey cart.
Do you think any of those responses would come off as arrogant or dismissive to what, in a recession, people would consider a genuine concern in terms of spending?
Cuffie: There are two things. One, I think picong has a well established place in politics. The Prime Minister was speaking in a party convention and engaging in picong like everybody else does. If you go to a party convention and stick to talking policies, half of the audience will be asleep and the other half will be gone. That is part of politics.
The other thing is that a new car is sometimes a better deal than keeping an old car. If you do the economics of it (and) the cost of repair, it could be a better proposition.
That’s one. The second thing is the Prime Minister bought a car and they had not bought a car in over six years. I didn’t see a big deal. Is it because it is a Mercedes Benz?
Wired868: But that wasn’t the response given; that the car was six years old and it is simply time for a new one. A reference was made to shocks and most people don’t change vehicles because of bad shocks.
Cuffie: Well, prime ministers don’t fix shocks. As the prime minister of a country, for a lot of reasons, you replace (your vehicle) after (it) reaches the age of obsolescence because, simply, after that it becomes more expensive to maintain. After you change shocks you will have to change something else. No company keeps vehicles for that long.
I didn’t think that was… Well, I understood why the media thought it was an important story but I didn’t think the Prime Minister getting a new car (was a story) because all prime ministers get new cars.
It is not his car. It is the country’s car. He will leave it there just like Kamla left it there. And I think what he said is true. You don’t know often times what you are getting.
Wired868: In a recession—and we understand that things might get tighter and some stuff is still kicking in—how is the Government able to appreciate what is happening on the ground floor? Because some time in the next year or two, you will really need the patience of the public, in terms of the unions and everybody else, to operate.
Cuffie: If you are a MP, you have a very good idea. I have a constituency meeting this evening and I will hear from them… People don’t put water in their mouth to tell you how they feel. On Sunday morning, I went to the cricket tournament (in my constituency) and before I was at an old folks home in La Horquetta.
Everywhere you go, you engage people. As I said my constituents call me by phone.
Wired868: What about the general council meetings and retreats and so on? What do people feel are the main concerns and should be the priority right now?
Cuffie: It is housing/jobs. A lot of people have job concerns. And those are the main things. One thing, which may be specific to my constituents, at that time crime was a big concern. But my constituents haven’t mentioned that much.
Editor’s Note: Click HERE to read Part One where Maxie Cuffie discussed decentralisation, government bottlenecks and the problem with La Horquetta/Talparo. Wired868 will run Part Three on Friday May 13.