Trinidad’s ministerial reshuffle
The talk of the month in Trinidad & Tobago has been the ministerial reshuffle announced by Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar. She has broken a national, and at least regional, record by creating the largest Cabinet ever in the country in what is widely seen as a decision with a dual purpose and rationale. The first was the necessity to quell concern about her style of political management within the People’s Partnership (PP) government, by satisfying the desires for ministerial appointments of the various partners of the coalition. This concern was emphasized lately by the departure from it of the Movement for Social Justice, a small and numerically insignificant grouping, but having some intellectual and ideological resonance in Trinidad’s labour and NGO movements.
The first rationale seems to be the result of continuing controversy within the coalition spurred particularly by the labour movement part of it, concerned about limitations being placed on it by the government in respect of its pursuit of wage increases. The most significant part of the labour movement at the head of such expressions of concern has been the Oilfield Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU), formerly led by the historical labour radical Errol McLeod, now apparently calmed by his responsibilities as Minister of Labour, and by his consequent commitment to the economic policies of the coalition.
The second rationale for the reshuffle seems to have been the Prime Minister’s sensitivity to concern, particularly within the business sector, that the country’s economy was sliding downwards, without an early prospect of a reversal of that trend. The issue had been highlighted recently by a statement by the Governor of the Central Bank, Ewart Williams, that the economy had, in effect entered a slump, partly as a result of fiscal measures designed to control public expenditure. In that regard, sentiment within the business sector and among professional economists has been that though then Minister of Finance Winston Dookeran, founder and former leader of the Congress of the People (COP) – the second largest party in the PP – had succeeded in stabilizing the fiscal situation, little that he had done had resulted in the resumption of economic growth.
Prime Minister Bissessar has responded to business sentiment in two ways, first by shifting Dookeran from Finance to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and in the process sacrificing her loyal supporter in coalition circles, Suruj Rambachan, and placing him in the Ministry of Public Utilities. But at the same time she seems to have minimized his importance there by giving the portfolio of Environment and Water Resources to Mr Ganga Singh, long a Minister in Basdeo Panday’s governments, but one of the founders of the Congress of the People (COP).
The movement of Dookeran, a professional economist and former university lecturer, seems to reflect her perception of his declining significance in the management of the COP, and the rise in that grouping of persons led, for example, by the voluble Minister of Sports Anil Roberts, who seems to have become one of the strongest supporters of the Prime Minister, and of former Minister of Works Austin Jack Warner, the dominant UNC Chairman. What is seen as Warner’s promotion to the Ministry of National Security in the face of public concern about the crime and security situation in the country, has itself given rise to concern as to whether he should hold such a sensitive portfolio, given his difficulties with FIFA. But Warner’s reputation as a can-do individual, when linked to the undoubtedly crucial role that he played in Mrs Bissessar’s rise to the leadership of the UNC and in the PP’s election victory, seems to have made him indispensable to her in the management of both the country and the coalition.
Most significant, and surprising though, has been the appointment of the head of the country’s Citizens Bank, Larry Howai, widely seen as having restored the reputation of that financial institution, to the position of Minister of Finance. In so doing the Prime Minister indicates a sentiment increasingly common in the region, that successful business persons are the one’s best suited to restore sliding economies.
Howai comes into the government as a neutral person, with no public allegiance to any of the parts of the PP coalition, but with obviously strong links to the various parts of the private sector, and presumably able to influence it towards participation in the priming of the economic pump. In a sense he replaces the business star of the government on its accession to office, Stephen Cadiz, the Minister of Trade now placed in the Ministry of Tourism, a portfolio of relatively low significance in Trinidad.
Will the changes quell concern about Bissessar’s management of the government? Some commentators complain that she would appear to be further complicating her life by having to manage such a large Cabinet. But an alternative response has been that, like Dr Eric Williams, faced with ructions in his party in the mid-1970s, she will probably rule with a smaller, de facto ‘kitchen Cabinet,’ constituted mainly of her UNC supporters and some loyalists from other parts of the coalition managed by the strong hand of Jack Warner, feigning obliviousness about his own personal challenges.
Bissessar’s current advantage, however, would seem to be a continuing lethargy within the opposition People’s National Movement, which leader Dr Rowley, seems to have been unable, so far, to change. It appears that, even in the absence from the country of former leader, now bed-ridden, Patrick Manning, Rowley, in spite of his acknowledged strong intellect, has not been able to harness the strengths of the defeated PNM towards influencing forces outside of the party to rally, formally or informally, to his side.
From a regional perspective, it appears still the case that Trinidad under Bissessar is maintaining a somewhat hands-off posture. But on the other hand, it would seem that her own economic philosophy is based on a certain hands-off by the state, in favour of support for initiatives elaborated by the Trinidad private sector still apparently willing to seek investments in Caricom, while venturing into the wider Caribbean-Latin America, as recent initiatives towards Panama have shown.
The region will, however, be hoping to be able to take some measured assessment of the rearranged government’s regional posture, when the Community’s heads of government assemble in St Lucia this week for their meeting.