Turning on the spigots
The Prime Minister’s much-anticipated announcement of a cabinet “reconfiguration” finally came in a national broadcast last Friday evening. By the time she was finished it was clear that the reconfiguration was naught but an elaborate card trick. It was, in fact, a full-scale reshuffle of the deck meant to conceal from the on-lookers a critical move of just one card.
To be sure the reshuffle also took the opportunity to realise other, secondary, objectives. For one, the elevation of Marlene Coudray to a cabinet position clears the way for the appointment of a COP member to become Mayor of San Fernando, thus answering the demands made by COP leader, Prakash Ramadhar, when Ms Coudray defected to the UNC.
The appointment of Jack Warner to the Ministry of National Security was another such move. While appearing to elevate Mr Warner, it really places him in a no-win position in which his reputation as an “action” minister is certain to be severely tested if not irredeemably shattered.
The Ministry of National Security has many dimensions but, to the majority of the population, the critical judgment as to whether the incumbent in that position is performing or not, is made in relation to the issue of crime and the expectation that what is to be achieved is a significant and sustained reduction in the incidence of serious crime, particularly murder.
For all his dynamism and activism there is little chance of Mr Warner achieving any such objective. He will find that the problem of crime is not amenable to the kind of quick fixes that have become his stock-in-trade. It is for this reason that the Ministry of National Security has become a graveyard of ministerial reputations. Brigadier Sandy’s is only the latest interment. Mr Warner’s is likely to be the next.
But while these, and other, moves were meant to achieve certain tactical political goals they were all incidental to the main objective which was the removal of Mr Dookeran as Minister of Finance. His shift to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs gives the impression that his ministerial status is undiminished but this too is only a clever piece of sleight-of-hand.
The fact is that under this Government the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is an empty, powerless and purposeless sinecure. In its two years in office this Government has failed to enunciate either by word or deed any discernible foreign policy, and if the role of Mr Dookeran’s predecessor in that Ministry, Suruj Rambachan, is any indication, then his new role is that of herald to Her Majesty on her frequent overseas jaunts.
Mr Dookeran’s tenure as Minister of Finance was, to say the least, a disappointing one. It is true that on taking office he had inherited a difficult situation. In 2010 the economy was in its second year of decline. Government revenues had plummeted by some 30 per cent and the new government found itself still locked in to massive and unsustainable expenditure, both recurrent and capital (projects), left by the previous administration. In addition Mr Dookeran found himself chained to the reckless commitments made by the previous administration with regard to the CLICO debacle.
To give him his due Mr Dookeran was very clear about what the fundamental problems of the economy were. In his very first budget presentation he stated as follows: “we have eternally spoken about diversification of the economy; yet other than the transition from an oil-based to a gas-based economy, the structure of the economy has not changed. In essence Government revenue and GDP growth are highly linked to developments in the energy sector …and economic activity in non-energy sector remains dependent on Government’s ability to transfer the energy sector revenue to domestic expenditure.”
If Mr Dookeran’s tenure at the Ministry of Finance is a disappointment it is because, notwithstanding this clear exposition of what was necessary, he did nothing to begin to change this reality. He leaves the Ministry with the country in greater debt than he found it, with the Government’s non-productive expenditure on subsidies and transfers higher than he found it and with nothing in place that approximated a plan or policy to reverse this pattern.
All this would be proper justification for Mr Dookeran’s removal from the Ministry of Finance. But do not be fooled. This is not why the Prime Minister has removed him. It must be acknowledged that from the very beginning of his tenure Mr Dookeran did one thing that was right. He strived, with great determination and in the face of much opposition from his cabinet colleagues, to reign in increases in Government expenditure.
The Prime Minister, in outlining on her reshuffle, thanked Mr Dookeran, “for stabilising the economy” and for laying the foundation for the “growth and take-off” of the economy. What that means is that the policy of controlling government expenditure is no more and from here on in the spigots of spending are going to be opened wide.
For, in spite of all the achievements of her government of which she boasted in her statement, the Prime Minister must be aware there is widespread disenchantment and disillusionment with her administration. Fresh elections are now less than three years away and from now till then the policy will be one of spend till we win and tomorrow will take care of itself.
Mr Dookeran, if he wanted to, could, from the repose of his new Ministry, tell us exactly where that would lead since he has done it before. Early in 2011 he had stated that, as a result of the “pathetic” economic management of the PNM, the “economy was in a mess”.
He went on to describe exactly what that meant. He stated that there was, “non-productive expenditure in many areas, and that led to no revenue coming into the country because the growth has fallen...so basically, it is bad priorities, (for) apart from corruption and other issues like that, and wastage; we just kept spending money without having an income stream.”
Here we go again.
• Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on
politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean.