On July 18th, the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr Keith Rowley and the Opposition Leader and immediate past Prime Minister, Mrs Kamla Persad-Bissessar met at Parliament Building in Port-of-Spain for three hours. On their agenda for discussion was an impressive list of items including self-governance for Tobago, anti-gang legislation, the judiciary, Integrity Commission, campaign finance reform, a code of conduct for Parliamentarians and service commissions’ effectiveness. They reached agreement on everything on the agenda except for the delicate and complex controversy in the judiciary over the abortive appointment of Ms Marcia Ayers-Caesar as a judge.
The extent of their agreement on the various issues was muscular. On the question of campaign financing – an item which has not been seriously grappled with here – the two leaders agreed to have legislation enacted before the 2020 general election. The matter will also be taken before the Law Reform Commission as an assignment and to conduct whatever public consultation is required.
On crime-fighting, both leaders agreed, by way of the Attorney General to repeal and replace the current arrangement for a Commissioner of Police. Contending that there was poor accountability and questionable performance, PM Rowley said the service commissions will be reviewed and adjustments made. They agreed that T&T should align with the Canadian model with respect to the commissions’ modernisation.
On the Integrity Commission – which this government has failed to activate two years on – the T&T PM expressed his view to Mrs Persad-Bissessar that the Commission has lost the confidence of the population. The Commission will be reviewed and other models will be considered to bring about results, which will be taken to Parliament once there is Opposition support.
Mr Rowley was elected as PM of Trinidad on September 7th, 2015, roughly four months after President Granger and his APNU+AFC government took office. Even though the Trinidadian PM has had acrimonious and at times bitter exchanges with his predecessor, Caribbean-style, that has not prevented the two of them from having frank exchanges and productive dialogue on national security and other pressing matters.
Less than a year after he took office, on September 2nd, 2016, PM Rowley and Mrs Persad-Bissessar had detailed talks on the parlous crime situation and broached 16 pieces of legislation. There have been other engagements between the two leaders in Parliament and elsewhere.
By contrast, here in Guyana where such engagement is desperately needed, President Granger and his government have shown complete disinterest in any dialogue with the Opposition Leader. More than 26 months have elapsed and there has been no attempt at any type of structured talks. The fault is completely with the President and his government. The onus is on President Granger to initiate such discussions but there is no evidence in the public domain that he has made any such effort. Indeed, the required constitutional consultations with the Opposition Leader have been shallow and fractious. Clearly poorly advised, President Granger has managed to fashion a crisis out of what should have been a straightforward selection of the chairman of the Guyana Elections Commission. The first list that the President was presented with by Mr Jagdeo provided a basis for the selection of a Chairman but he balked. His reading of the constitution has been flawed but he refuses to accept this. The initial consultation between the two leaders on the appointment of a Chancellor and a Chief Justice was also not promising. It is left to be seen how these talks will develop.
It is not that the Mr Jagdeo has been very helpful in the cause of dialogue. He has played the Opposition role to the hilt; stridently criticising the government at every turn even where he has zero credibility. Mr Jagdeo can however boast of two major attempts at high-level political dialogue when he was President even if they fell far short of their objectives. He held intensive rounds of talks – some of which were productive – with then Opposition Leader, former President Desmond Hoyte and later with Mr Hoyte’s successor, Mr Robert Corbin.
By contrast, President Granger shows no such inclination. He and his government present themselves to the public as if they have no responsibility to engage with the political opposition which has a constituency not much smaller than APNU+AFC’s and which has shown great signs of disaffection with his administration. It was the richest irony that one of APNU’s own members, the venerable Working People’s Alliance recently complained volubly that it had been ignored by the coalition government over the last two years.
APNU has clearly asserted itself forcefully in the government over the last two years to the detriment of all else. With one of its members occupying the Prime Ministerial position, its current leader holding clearly PNCR/APNU sympathies and its former leader now under siege over the prisons, the AFC is a mere shadow of itself and without any demonstration of intent to force good governance issues, constitutional reform and matters such as the appointment of the Local Government Commission.
President Granger and his government may well have already determined that the all-consuming objective is to win the upcoming general elections and preside over first oil and its revenues and that dialogue with the Opposition Leader would run counter to this. There are however many important areas where dialogue with the Opposition Leader is vital to the national interest and could be productive. These include constitutional reform, the plight of the sugar industry and how best to secure the future of thousands of sugar workers and their families, the crisis in neighbouring Venezuela, the need for a united position on the nascent oil and gas industry, the disastrous violence in the prisons and ongoing crime.
No matter the bickering that consume their politics, PM Rowley and Mrs Persad-Bissessar have shown that they are prepared to place the national interest ahead of anything else. President Granger must seize the initiative.