After her People’s Partnership government’s recent celebration of one year in office, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar has undertaken a reshuffle of her Cabinet, in the midst of pressures from various sides of the political and economic arenas. Facing continuing dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the Clico collapse issue, she has relieved Finance and Planning Minister Winston Dookeran of the Planning portfolio, making it look as if she wishes him to give his full attention to Finance. Further, she has transferred Minister of Energy Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan, an academic and practical specialist in that field, to the Ministry of Public Administration. Minister of Works and Transport and Chairman of the United National Congress (UNC) Jack Warner, has been relieved of the Transport part of his portfolio; Senator Subhas Panday, brother of Basdeo, the former Prime Minister and UNC leader, has been relieved both of his position as Minister in the Ministry of National Security, and of his Senatorship; and a prominent UWI academic supporter, Senator Dr Patrick Watson, head of the University’s Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies, thought, as a specialist in finance, to be an adviser to Minister Dookeran, has been relieved of his Senatorship.
A last-minute attempt was made to prevent certain aspects of the reshuffle by a written complaint to the Prime Minister from People’s Partnership associate, the Congress of the People (COP), and a request for further consultation. The COP has argued that the reshuffle seems to have involved a virtual attempt to remove its influence from the Cabinet, and as a significant actor in the People’s Partnership. The party observed that the changes were being made without consultation with the other parties of the Partnership. But commentators have already been reminding the party that changes of personnel in Cabinet is a strictly prime ministerial prerogative for which no prior consultation is necessary. And the Prime Minister has herself reinforced this position by asserting that she has acted as “CEO [Chief Executive Officer] of the Cabinet”.
It is, of course, no secret that over the government’s year in office there has been a series of incidents, some bringing direct criticism of the Prime Minister’s competence, her too close allegiance to associates in trouble, and her unwillingness to take decisive action in the face of malfeasances by ministers or other government-related personnel. But there has also been, in terms of sympathy for her, the argument that the People’s Partnership, being a three-side electoral coalition now in government, to which neither Trinidad, nor in general Caricom, politicians have been accustomed, has required some on-the-job learning as to how it should operate. Further, some have argued that a Cabinet such as the PP’s would, in the course of decision-making, require more extensive and extended internal consultation, making the decision-making of Cabinet and the Prime Minister, more lengthy than the citizenry and the social partners, have been accustomed to. But the Prime Minister herself has never conceded this kind of argument, and has insisted that there will necessarily have been a learning and adjustment period which is not abnormal.
On the other hand, now that she has acted – and in accordance with convention is not required to give reasons for her changes in Cabinet’s composition – there is obviously still much speculation, first about the changes affecting ministers with major portfolios, and secondly about whether the changes she has now made will improve the nature and speed of her the government’s decision-making. In respect of Mr Jack Warner, as is well known, the Prime Minister has been under intense pressure to dismiss him from the Cabinet in the light of the FIFA affair. But there has been a special relationship between herself and Warner which has given her much reason for hesitation. First he was instrumental in manoeuvring her succession to the leadership of the UNC; and secondly, he has gone about his portfolio of Works with a special energy that opinion polls show has impressed the public. And in that context, it is probably the case that contrary to any speculation about her removal of the Transport portfolio being a concession to those shouting for blood over the FIFA matter, the Transport portfolio has been removed from Warner because he has been in conflict with the Board of Caribbean Airlines, headed by a powerful Trinidad businessman and PP supporter, a situation which has seemed to be unresolvable. In that conflict he has been joined by Minister Dookeran, who recently wrote, and publicized a letter to the Prime Minister requesting the appointment of a new CAL Board. So it would be surprisinig if her change to Warner’s status will resolve the complaints relating to FIFA, about which the Trinidad opposition and media are exercised. And in any case, he remains Chairman of the UNC, in which role he has played some part in resolving internal matters of the party, taking much of the load off the Prime Minister.
Interesting too, is the removal of Minister Seepersad-Bachan as Minister of Energy. The Minister has become embroiled in a controversy, eagerly exploited by the opposition People’s National Movement, over an attempt by the Board of National Petroleum to give a substantial contract to a company with, allegedly, close family connections to the Prime Minster. It would appear that the Minister, in disconnecting herself from any dealings with the proposed contract, has not been able to quiet public concern about the need for transparency in the PP’s conduct of government. Yet, over the last year or so, the view has evolved that there is increasing foreign investor interest in the energy sector of Trinidad & Tobago, and an opinion seems to be arising within the Trinidad business sector, that what might be seen by foreign investors as a precipitate change in the ministry, may not be in the best interest of the country.
The removal of the Minister of Health, Senator Baptiste-Cornelis, has not been entirely surprising since she has been constantly involved since her appointment in various controversies relating to the medical profession; and then in Tobago, whose two electoral seats are now held by the People’s Partnership. The PP would seem to be on a campaign to diminish the influence of the Tobago Assembly, which was granted certain new powers during the period of PNM rule, under a revised constitutional arrangement. This itself has brought the Prime Minister into controversy in Tobago, so it would appear convenient to douse some of the flames there by Baptiste-Cornelis’s dismissal, while killing two birds with one stone by also appeasing the medical profession.
Whether these changes will satisfy the public is naturally left to be seen. But commentators have remarked on the continuity of difficulties and controversies which have befallen the PP government since it has come into government. They wonder whether those involved in the changes in the sixteen areas of Cabinet responsibility, have really been the sources of its problems, even in the face of a relatively weak, and as yet unreconstructed opposition. For the time being, they will only have the Prime Minister’s immediate reply to console them: “It is part of my desire to recognize the need for transparency in government and being human… Only God doesn’t make mistakes.”