Friday, January 19, 2018

Poor PNM

Keith Rowley has said that, on becoming leader, he found the People’s National Movement in an “absolute mess”, “a state of bankruptcy” and one of his first assignments was to “evade the ignominy of losing Balisier House to creditors”.

I find this utterly alarming and I hope most citizens are very dismayed, because as I have said before, the PNM belongs to all of us.

It is one of our oldest indigenous institutions, it brought party politics to this country, ran the last leg of the relay to Independence and managed the country, however imperfectly, for 30 unbroken years after self-government. With all its warts, it has endured, is important to our democracy and its state must be of national concern. So we must all ask why, after almost 60 years, is the PNM in this present state. What does Patrick Manning, dominant political leader for 23 years, have to say?

Dr Rowley said he met a PNM that borrowed money to conduct elections. Is this so? It may have had to borrow in 2010, because of its unpopular government, compounded by Mr Manning calling the elections three years early. But businesses most certainly contributed. We all saw the elaborate infrastructure, arrangements, entertainment and paraphernalia of public meetings as well as the many advertisements on radio, television and the newspapers.

Much money was spent. But has any statement of accounts been made to the party? The party also conducted elaborate general election campaign in 2000, 2001 and 2007. Does the general council of the party know where the money came from, how much was borrowed, how much donated? Was any money saved for the party’s coffers?

Dr Rowley’s revelations confirm that our main political parties are mainly tools for politicians to attain power and for financiers to gain access to the treasury. There is little caring for the party itself.

Look at the headquarters of the PNM and the UNC. Balisier House could fall down any minute. The UNC does not even own a home; it is a squatter in Reinzi Complex, owned by the union once headed by Basdeo Panday. Balisier House should have been rebuilt long ago. As I said in an earlier column, “it should have been transformed into a modern party headquarters with administrative offices, auditorium, library, archives, conference rooms, party school and even a restaurant for conviviality and discussion of national affairs; a place alive and for all to visit, including children and foreigners, to learn of the country’s oldest party and further understand the nation’s history. Such a Balisier House would have provided inspiration to the PNM in its present condition. It may even have prevented its 2010 disaster”.

After all these years, the PNM and UNC should have been financially independent with an income stream from appropriate investments. Instead they are totally dependent on political investors and beholden to them in office, ensuring they get all the juicy contracts, distorting the democratic process in the country.

Our political parties therefore facilitate corruption. And who is cheated, when billions are stolen from the nation’s treasury? The ordinary members and supporters of the PNM and the UNC, the mass of people in the country. The people end up being cheated by the parties they love. This has been the tragedy of Trinidad and Tobago for the past 50 years!

Money is necessary in politics and parties must be open to financial support from the business community. But money should not trump message. It must be servant, not master; facilitator, not driver; means, not inspiration. In the earlier battle between the ideals of socialism and the wealth-generating capacity of capitalism, message held sway. In today’s intellectual wasteland, money rules, and the people remain cheated. Is Dr Rowley’s PNM headed in that direction? Insiders say among present PNM political investors, there is already a planned division of the spoils if the party gets into government.

Decisions have already been made on which investor is going to control which state enterprise. Is Dr Rowley aware of these conversations?

Under Eric Williams, the PNM was different, almost majestic. The “Doctah” brought vision, passion and mission. He established a party with mass membership, constitution, and a beautiful party headquarters. People paid dues and owned their party. The party had appeal; business people wanted to be associated with it; and the PNM didn’t have to go cap in hand to political investors for financing.

Also, to be fair to Mr Manning, he always spent time in opposition preparing for government and emerged with two documents which guided his policies as Prime Minister: PNM perspectives for the eighties and beyond’ and ‘VISION 2020’. But after three years in opposition, we have no idea what a new PNM government would do for the country’s economic and social development. With the utter bankruptcy of the People’s Partnership, the PNM has a special responsibility to fashion a vision for Trinidad and Tobago.

I have already posed two questions a party must answer to get my vote in the next general election. “Firstly, how will you revolutionise governance to achieve a separation of powers between the executive and the legislature, critical to making the parliament a fierce watchdog over the cabinet, government and state enterprises? And secondly, how would you restructure the nation’s economy, still overwhelmingly state-dominated, stymieing the deeper private sector development needed for diversification?” And I want no vacuous statements of intent or flimsy generalisations.

Tell me how you will do it. If the PNM could provide real answers to my questions, it could rise from its present impoverished state materially and intellectually. It would become rich in attractiveness and appeal. It might even win the general election. Then, no more “poor PNM”.

* Ralph Maraj is a playwright and former government minister