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Political coalitions

By John Spence

ONE of our political scientists has expressed support for the concept of coalitions, even suggesting that it is now the norm in many countries. I beg to differ. In my view no political party would go into a coalition if it had any alternative. This is why coalitions are invariably formed after an election, if no one party wins a sufficient number of seats or votes to form a Government on its own.

There are exceptions – such as in Trinidad and Tobago with formation of the People's Partnership. Let us be realistic; the only reason that the Partnership was formed was that it was judged that this was the safest way of defeating the People's National Movement (PNM) or, more specifically, the only way of getting Patrick Manning out of power.

There are many issues on which, if political parties are to remain true to their ideals, there can be no compromise if the parties in the coalition have fundamentally different views. Suppose one party in a coalition believes that there should be a tunnel to Maracas, and another party believes that there should not be a tunnel, is the compromise to be to build the tunnel half way through the mountain? It is only by giving such absurdities that one can dramatise the issue of coalitions. The same may apply to the death penalty or abortion. There may be more subtle issues such as the degree of Government intervention in the economy or private vs public sector involvement in the health services.

In Canada there is no private medicine but in Trinidad and Tobago the poor condition of Government health services means that private medical services predominate. Anyone who can afford to do so will use private medical services. Recent announcements by the Minister of Health suggest that the People's Partnership Government is moving further towards private health services. The Minister has announced that the Government will provide the land for the private sector to set up health centres of excellence and the Government will buy services!

Presumably these private centres of excellence will also be able to provide services to private patients. Why should the Government subsidise (by providing land) private services to high income earners? Could a movement for social justice be part of a government that promotes such a system? What of the charges for the services provided to the Government? Will there be "price control" on these? Health care is now a basic service which even right wing political movements support to be provided by governments –certainly in Europe and Canada.

I never cease to be amazed at the sums of taxpayers' money that are paid in lawyers' fees to obtain legal advice for the Government in this country. My understanding of our Constitution is that the Attorney General and the Solicitor General are mandated to provide legal advice for Government. Surely if they are worthy of "silk" they must be competent enough to provide legal advice themselves! Is this another service which is being privatised?

I do not consider the skirmishes between the United National Congress (UNC) and the COP on "poaching" of members to be of any great political significance. Which party holds the office of Mayor is also of little consequence if the agreed policies are being pursued.

Of greater importance are issues such as economic policy and the extent of state involvement in governance. The Minister of Finance was until recently the political leader of the COP and I have not yet heard any significant difference in economic policy set out by the new leader.

With respect to COP policy there has been no indication of an increase in the very low rate of income tax in spite of the widening gap between rich and poor in this country. This is happening in many other countries but the difference is that while there is much discussion of this issue worldwide there is no discussion of this within the partnership. In Britain with a Conservative government in power the top rate of income tax has just been reduced from 50 per cent to 45 per cent compared to 25 per cent in Trinidad and Tobago! Do the Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) and the COP agree on the necessary rate of income tax?

Another important issue which Michael Harris has written on this week (Express March 26) is that of local government. The Manifesto of the People's Partnership for the 2010 election and that of the COP for the 2007 elections both emphasised the importance of local government yet during the almost two years of the Partnership Government there has been no action to implement these manifesto promises.

Do the parties in the Partnership agree on local government reform? Are compromises possible? In spite of all the talk of "power to the people" the greatest possibility for involvement of the people in governance (through strong local government) is being ignored.

In my view the MSJ and the COP can hardly continue to accept this inaction on the part of the Partnership Government on reform of local government. I am surprised at the lack of comments on this issue by the COP and the MSJ. Surely this is of much greater significance than "poaching" of membership!

In conclusion it is my opinion that coalitions are not a new form of governance but are marriages of convenience that last only so long as each party sees some advantage of the arrangement for being in power while not compromising principles. I do not see the MSJ staying in the Partnership; the COP may stay longer since its policies on the economy and on local government seem to be close to those of the UNC.

• John Spence is Professor Emeritus, UWI. He also served as an Independent

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