The 2013/2014 budget debate lacked much of the usual controversy.
Some of the exchanges however provided us with glimpses of what might well have happened in the early life of the Partnership Government. The great scramble was on. The prevailing view seemed to have been that after many years of having been in the wilderness, the stalwarts of the opposition had finally won power, and it was now their turn to eat.
As the Minister of Housing Roodal Moonilal told us, “People were asked to make recommendations for people whom they thought should benefit from Government’s programmes. Hundreds, if not thousands, jumped aboard the gravy train, assisted by their MPs.”
Jack Warner among them. He told Parliament that there was an unseemly scramble for the spoils of office and that “corruption had (now become) institutionalised”.
Warner admitted that he too had participated in that scramble and that he had to “go down on his knees every day to say sorry to this country for what I did”.
Interestingly, he accused his former colleagues of not having done the due diligence that was expected of them in respect of the Reshmi Ramnarine matter.
As he told Parliament, “Under the banner of collective responsibility, everyone was prepared to do wrong, and try to sneak her into office, and that was wrong.” He himself asked the public for “forgiveness”.
Jack repeated his now famous apologia that he did not know about some of the things that occurred in this period.
Had he known then what he knew today about government under the People’s Partnership Government, he would have left them a long time ago, he said.
Warner again insisted that a cabal had taken charge of the Government, and that the country was being run on the basis of “race, religion and geography”.
He complained to the Prime Minister, but “in vain”.
Moonilal counter-complained on behalf of the Partnership that Jack was being disingenuous and lacking in honesty and trustworthiness.
As he whinged in respect of Warner, “When the member was on this side, we never heard about ministers acquiring ‘six houses’, what car was being rented, and all these things. Now suddenly, every week there was some revelation about this or that.” That was a political “foul,” he charged. Moonilal promised to do to Jack just what he was doing to his former colleagues.
“Every week the member comes to Parliament and attacks this Government about corruption. He promised to respond “every single week until that holier than thou approach, accusing the government, stops. One...way or another, that...will stop.”
One of the interesting questions raised by the exchange was whether matters which were discussed in cabinet should continue to be covered by the doctrine of collective responsibility for persons who have left the cabinet. My view is that confidentiality should normally continue in respect of who said what in cabinet except when extraordinary circumstances involving gross corruption or gross misbehaviour are involved. It is however a prickly issue to determine when exceptions are tolerable. One remembers the controversy of the Richard Crossman diaries which caused a furore in the UK when they were published.
Prior to this exchange in Parliament, there were rumours and allegations galore and about what was being done by whom in the cabinet and the chambers of the executive and with what conflict of interest. There was a lot of lurid gossip about what was being done in respect of Caribbean Airlines (CAL), about who was soliciting kickbacks, paybacks for political or legal services rendered, who was buying how many houses in gated communities in north and west Port of Spain, money being exported to Panama and Costa Rica, substantial sums being paid for contracts to install or repair facilities at WASA, Airports Authority, PTSC, exorbitant rentals and much else.
One also heard a great deal about appointments being made to family, friends, neighbours and who lacked either appropriate qualifications or compensating experience.
Standards seem to have tumbled overnight.
The public reacted to these allegations with resignation or howls of outrage. One popular reaction was to say, “I told you so.” In reply it was said that Manning and the PNM also had their cronies and cabals.
Some sympathisers of the PP wondered whether UNC bashing had now become the newest sport in town. Some also argued that much of what was taking place was reverse discrimination, restructuring driven by the need to reorder skewed arrangements. There had been a shift of power to the deep south.
Questions were likewise asked about Kamla’s performance, her work habits, and her record as a trans-ethnic leader. When she said that “we shall rise”, to whom was she appealing?
Opinion was also sharply divided as to whether the Prime Minister was herself beyond suspicion, a matter that was before the Integrity Commission and has since been officially resolved by a judgement of the Commission. The Minister of Works, Dr Suruj Rambachan, sought to silence doubts by firmly dismissing allegations that the Prime Minister condoned misbehaviour on the part of her advisers. As he told Parliament, “The Prime Minister cannot be bought, traded or sold. She is in no one’s pocket, back pocket or front pocket. She is an independent leader. She is incorruptible.”
Rambachan also sought to put to rest Warner’s allegations about an ubiquitous cabal.
“And there is no cabal. All there is as a group of people working in the interest of Trinidad and Tobago and its citizens.”
The controversy about the existence of a southern based familistic cabal and its influence on policy making and resource allocation continues despite denials. Some argue that we need to make a distinction between Kamla and those around her.
According to this point of view, she is powerless to deal with the cabal. She has surrendered because she lacks the capacity to stop them from excessive ethnic grazing. Others claim that she is not trying hard enough to rein in her courtiers and that she is in fact protecting them.
Perhaps we need a Truth Commission to determine what is true and what is a by-product of our demography and our adversarial politics.
—To be continued