Sunday, December 17, 2017

What has she done? Carolyn to answer

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Mark Fraser

 She prayed and she weighed and she pondered. Then Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan decided to run for the Congress of the People (COP) leadership. 

Using the voguish rhetorical conceit of today, she claimed “humility” in deciding to exalt her own claims of competence to work the levers attributable to the position at the party pinnacle. 

Craving the blessings of “humility”, the Seepersad-Bachan candidacy will nevertheless ensure demanding evaluation of her record and critical assessment of her potential. To answer the question, “what has she done ?”, minds will turn to her latest act of “leadership” in engineering the suspension from the COP of Anil Roberts, or at least purporting to do so. 

It turns out that the sword which severed Mr Roberts carries an ominous double edge. He is known for his loud-hailer’s political stylings, but also recognised for his lack of sympathy for Mrs Seepersad-Bachan. 

 Three years ago, he offered up against the official party line of  “strong disagreement” with the Prime Minister’s decision to shuffle her out of the Energy and into the Public Administration portfolio. This, the party judged to be an especially unacceptable “demotion”, because Mrs Persad-Bissessar had not troubled to notify her coalition partner before making the move.

 From COP central, a strong letter went out to the Prime Minister, citing foundation Partnership understandings, and calling for “dialogue” before ministerial changes affecting the party’s standing. From Mr Roberts, however, came the dissident note that Mrs Seepersad-Bachan had “underperformed” in Energy, and pointed support for Ms Persad-Bissessar’s decision.

 The stage now looks set for an unstinting interrogation of this candidate’s leadership credentials. A spoiler’s role has been scripted for Mr Roberts, an emerging freelance trouper with political wounds to avenge, and with predictably less and less to lose. 

 Beyond the personalised score-settling, Mrs Seepersad-Bachan is liable to be called to account for her three years as Public Administration Minister. 

Serving as point woman in the surpassingly important energy sector entails high-flying engagement with the virtual lifeblood of the T&T economy, plus responsibility for deal-making, with far-reaching results, in the wide world of multinational finance, industry and organisations. Nice work if you can get it. But.

 The big “but” is that filling the position was never the COP’s call. Mrs Persad-Bissessar might have retained concerns about alienating so critical a share of governmental management into the unknowable disposition of a COP star. Upon the reshuffle, Mr Roberts referred darkly to some PNM-connected advisor whom Mrs Seepersad-Bachan had retained, no doubt to discomfort elsewhere in the Government.

All of which is now due to re-emerge as points of common talk around the COP campaign trails. But all of which counts as relatively ancient history, compared with timely appraisal of what candidate Seepersad-Bachan achieved in meeting the challenge of public administration.

Though Energy affords its excitements, less scope is offered for reinventing any wheels, than obtains in public administration. It is here the machinery of government reveals itself as creaky to the point of being regularly dysfunctional. 

Such is the picture that emerges from the Auditor General’s last report, which disclosed, in just the accounting area, failures of such extent, range and character as to bespeak administration in helpless crisis. 

The Public Administration Minister obviously cannot be called upon to do the work of permanent secretaries, officially the accounting officers. But public administration has stood in need of a public champion, who would authoritatively call attention to the overarching need for all that must be done to fix the machinery of Government. 

Evidently, the People’s Partnership, like preceding administrations, surrendered to the long-reigning precepts and practices supportive of centralisation at the level of the Cabinet. The Cabinet Note system, requiring supplications from all parts of the administration, inevitably choking a singular decision-making bottleneck, dates to colonial times.

Denis Solomon, writing in 1969, railed retroactively from his own Public Service days, against the multiple, assorted, default references to Cabinet for assent to matters large and small. In 1987-1988, then Prime Minister ANR Robinson reported that in one year he had been inundated with more than 2,000 such submissions. 

The Public Administration Ministry, and its ministers, in this millennium, have apparently achieved little by way of unblocking the upward flow of Cabinet Notes, made more voluminous by the multiplication of ministries. But this is only one systemic failure for which Ms Seepersad-Bachan is the latest to be held answerable.

Last week, Finance Minister Larry Howai loudly critiqued the budget-making process. It had seen no improvement, he said, “in the last 20 or 30 years”.  

Here, again, no evidence shows of Mrs Seepersad-Bachan’s improving hand. And Mr Roberts is yet to mount a platform.