In the space of one swearing-in ceremony we went from 31 to 23 Ministries, including the Office of the Prime Minister. The Treasury must be heaving a sigh of relief. But the country is abuzz in discussion and debate about what these changes and omissions will all mean. So, I've taken my blog out of its cupboard and dusting it off. Time to give the PNM a run for its money.
Elections 2015 came to an end last Monday (September 7th). It went for an hour longer than anticipated; and saw the UNC leadership and its support base descend into graceless and vicious behaviour that started off with Kamla Persad-Bissessar behaving like a spoilt and spiteful child: grudging concession speeches, tantrums about state cars, petitions to nullify the electoral process and untruths about the popular vote figures. The UNC's support base doing them one better by kicking off a week of race and hate-filled diatribe all over social media platforms. Take a bow UNC membership and leadership, you have outdone yourselves. We should count ourselves lucky that Sat Maharaj and Brenda Gopeesingh had the good sense to offer far more tempered and positive congratulations to the incoming government.
The Cabinet was named on Friday, and the critics came out of their cupboards at the shot of the pistol; which is to be expected after five years of a corrupt, runaway government that was particularly abusive to its electorate. Team Rowley is under heavy scrutiny and they will have to get used to it. Some of the selections I understand, some of the selections left me with a semi-WTF face. But let's get into it.
The Cabinet/Ministerial portfolios are significantly fewer than the previous government's. Kamla gave us somewhere around 31 Ministries, with many of the most important ministries being held by Senators who had either lost their seats at the polls or outright never faced the polls at all. Since Senators are appointed and not elected officials it often seemed that their loyalty lay with Kamla and not the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago. Rowley has trimmed that gargantuan Cabinet the UNC had down to 22 portfolios, exclusive of the office of the Prime Minister. Thus far only 4 senators - Clarence Rambharat, Dennis Moses, Jennifer Baptiste-Primus and Paula Gopee-Scoon - hold ministerial portfolios, and one senator, Avinash Singh, is a Parliamentary Secretary. It is the leanest Cabinet the country has had in a decade. Kudos to Dr Rowley for keeping that campaign promise. I expect Parliament Channel to become must-see TV, if only with the additions to the lower house.
It is clear that Rowley's policies as outlined on the campaign trail from as far back as the THA elections were going to guide his ministerial portfolios. Platform speeches rarely, if ever, addressed soft/social issues like the environment, gender, LGBT or arts and culture. The scope was always far more macro and developmental, with an insistence on re-setting the country's economic and administrative course first. Having listened keenly to what was being said for three years, the Ministries named didn't surprise me, thought some of the ministerial selections did.
Some of the areas Rowley and his team addressed in their platform speeches for the last three years were:
- Revamp local government
- Establish a Revenue Authority
- Revamp agriculture and improve local food production
- Clamp down on fiscal leakage and public spending
- Return order to the energy sector (still our main source of income)
- Develop rural areas
- Set a robust legislative agenda that includes whistleblower protection laws
- Revamp the TTPS and restore data and evidence-based policing
- Rectify the illegal distribution of state homes and lands
- Tackle the inequity and dispossession in black urban communities
- Revamp education from the primary level upwards
- Bring reform to the public sector
These are only a few. And the party's manifesto does a much better job at outlining their policies than I can. What for me was immediately clear throughout the campaign season is that Dr Rowley expects to spend this first five-year term cleaning up the mess that was made over the last five years and attempt to put the country and its economy in re-set mode. Which means he is in it for the long game and already planning for a PNM return to office.
With the government in re-set and austerity mode, several areas that got themselves a letterhead, a budget and a building under Kamla have disappeared. Those areas are Gender, Environment, Diversity and Integration, Multiculturalism and my absolute favourite, Church&Fete (ok, kidding, it wasn't exactly called church and fete, but you get the picture). Gender and Environment activists were immediately up in arms about the removal of named ministries. The removal of the other ministries caused not even a ripple.
Now get me clear here. I am a complete supporter of movements and policies that serve to enhance our quality of life, bring dignity to people's existence and sustain the planet we live on. What I do not support is having ministries for the sake of having a ministry. Or policies that are not data-driven with tangible ways to measure their success.
Can we itemise in tangible ways the impact these ministries have had on the wider public? I'm not talking about hiring staff and providing funding for NGO projects. I'm asking can we get a breakdown of these NGOs and their projects and a metric of the impact these projects had? In terms of the environment have there been campaigns launched to educate the public about basics like recycling, upcycling, sustainable living, reduction in plastic use, adopting rivers and beaches? How widespread were they? What kind of budgets did they have? What were the measurements for success? Did we meet those measurements?
And I can easily ask the same of Gender. When the ministry was brought into being, how did its various line ministers and advisers go about determining the goals of the ministry and assessing its success? Was the detention of Cheryl Miller in a mental asylum one of the Ministry's goals? The silence from the ministry on the many attacks on female journalists by male Ministers, was that another measure of success? Listen, I could go on and on; but my point is simple, if the Treasury is meant to be shelling out money to support initiatives and programmes under new ministries, then these Ministries owe it to the population to show how we benefit from their presence. And I do not mean in dollars and cents only; but in improved quality of life. And thus far, I'm not feeling it.
All of that to say, that a letterhead and building doesn't impress me. Rather, I am looking forward to hearing about gender and environment policy driven by data and research; and seeing how these policies into Dr Rowley's vision for enhancing the entire country. This is where Camille Robinson-Regis' Ministry of Planning and Development becomes very important; because she is now in charge of providing data and metrics.
I've never felt that either of those areas should be treated as independent areas. Gender affects everything. The environment affects everything. So I am expecting to see the Ministries of Agriculture, Housing, Energy and Rural Development all spearheading environmental policies; and to see gender policy affecting all 22 of Rowley's ministries, as well as his Office. I want to see an end to the slutshaming of women across the board. I want to see an end to women being judged suitable for only specific tasks and receiving less remuneration. I want to feel safe walking the streets of my country regardless of the time of day. And I want the way we discuss women and their bodies to change. If that doesn't happen, then Dr Rowley has failed in those areas for me. And I will remind him that the buck stops with him.
As per the suitability or qualifications of the Ministers named, my response is: Kamla Persad-Bissessar. Figure it out.
Ministers have access to teams of advisers, I hope they use them. I do not expect them to know everything, but I do expect them to make data-driven decisions and policies....which leads me to Religion and Sex Ed in schools...but not tonight...tomorrow.
For now, we have a government. Let us keep a keen eye on them and hold them accountable.