Thursday, February 22, 2018

A case of neither, nor...


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Dr Kublalsingh's hunger strike is no longer about "either, or". Its unintended consequence is a soul-searching which pits the People's Partnership Government against its brief record in office. This Government has unlearned the lessons which brought it to office and is learning no new ones. Why should it be trusted with $7 billion on a single project, with information, analysis, options, transparency and decency lacking?

The PM has just added fuel to the national debate by exploding part of her Government's truth: the rush to Point Fortin is part of the political tit-for-tat, to balance PNM spending in the north with Partnership spending in the south. It must be remarkably inconvenient for the PM that a PNM-controlled constituency and borough lies at the highway's end.

But two things about the re-routers clearly stung the Government.

First, this standoff comes from the innards of the Partnership Government, its reliable comfort zones of ethnicity, religion and politics. It may appear to be a small group of rabble-rousers, but it is likely that this small group speaks for a much larger group, just as unhappy with the proposal to displace them, but too fearful to oppose the rituals of party politics, ethnicity and religion, and swell the protesters. Their silent hope is to benefit either from this sharp resistance or their absence from it.

Then, the hunger strike has opened a wider national debate on the highway project itself and the modus operandi of the Partnership Government generally. It helps that the PM's inner circle is so incensed by the rude opposition to its plan to shove this highway through the UNC's heartland, that their reaction offers further evidence of a disentitlement to leadership. Their conduct quite simply speaks for itself.

Amongst the questions added to the original debate on the path of the highway, the country is now asking why the project is being financed out of revenues, without transparency; who are the primary beneficiaries of this massive financial outlay and low oversight; what justifies this project against competing interests; and, is this actually the best way to spend $7 billion on the country's south-west?

A key piece of evidence of how this highway project means more to certain Partnership ministers than others is the fact that Dr Kublalsingh went without food and water for two weeks before his cause elicited responses from the two main line ministers. Sixteen days into the hunger strike and after widespread regional and global media coverage, the Minister of Works, into whose hands His Excellency has thrust this highway construction responsibility, acted for the first time, offering the construction industry stakeholders a meeting with a pre-determined outcome.

One day later, we heard from the Minister of Finance that the country will pay for this highway out of revenues and not loans, confirming what Opposition Leader Keith Rowley questioned in June 2012. It means that the usual financing arrangements for a project of this magnitude have not been made, with the Government opting to split this massive financial undertaking between higher-priced short-term borrowings and regular demands on the country's revenues. It's the national equivalent of buying a house and financing it through a moneylender.

Of course, it is unsurprising that the PM's newest anti-PNM slant to the highway project follows the exact line taken by Minister Warner when he spoke on the Supplementary Appropriation Bill in June 2012.

In that contribution Mr Warner laid out six points in support of the Partnership's case for the highway: the PNM had no interest in building the highway; contractors who the PNM drove out of business were now seeing hope; the highway will stimulate the economy of the south-west; the highway will bring greater access to goods and services to the people of Point Fortin and environs; goods and services will be cheaper; and business will now expand into the south-west.

In that contribution Mr Warner also denounced the four sins of Dr Kublalsingh: he had said the Government must be brought down; he worked with a union which has said the Government must be brought down; he joined a party opposed to the Government; and re-routers were trying to put the PM in a negative way. Again, Mr Warner offered no substance in answer to the environmental, financial and technical concerns.

This leaves us where Dr Kublalsingh's hunger strike has brought us. The point is that this project should not be left unquestioned in the Partnership's hands. This is a Government which turned a $2.5 billion procurement of the Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV) into a billion-dollar loss, and turned a simple piece of legislation into a scandalous undermining of the Parliament, requiring an unprecedented recall of the Parliament for the purpose of repealing one vile section of law. This is also a Government which has rubbed independent service commissions the wrong way; has further undermined civility and decency in public life; and has deepened the governance and procurement problems which stifle the country and which ironically brought it to office.

Further, this is a Government in which the Prime Minister does not see it fit to explain the commingling of public and private family interests; the Minister of Finance does not care to shed light on a multi-million dollar payout just before he took up his political appointment; the Minister of National Security faces major international scrutiny and criticism, but is liberal with his accusations and attacks; and, the Attorney General leaves unanswered questions regarding the origin of Section 34 and the contradiction of his declaration of victory in the OPV arbitration, even though nine months before he described the exact outcome as a surety even if the country was unsuccessful at arbitration.

It is not simply either this route or that one. It's more like neither the PNM in 2010, nor the Partnership in 2012.

Clarence Rambharat is a lawyer and university lecturer.