IN HIS marathon reply to the Budget yesterday, Opposition Leader Basdeo Panday delivered a catalogue of charges against the Government ranging from a threat to the country's democracy, a collaboration with criminals to a critical mismanagement of the economy. It was also a speech filled with high political philosophising, illuminated by memorable quotations from some of the world's great thinkers. Indeed, one would have found it difficult not to be impressed by Mr Panday's dissertation if his contribution had no context, if in fact we did not have his own performance as leader of the UNC government from November 1995 to December 2001 as material by which to assess the quality of his own credibility. The Opposition Leader may be on good ground when he attacks the Government for failing to deal with the crime crisis and may well raise genuine concerns by referring to criminals being "rewarded with resources of the State like land and quarries and contracts in sensitive state enterprises."
On the same subject, he cites reports about a high ranking government official being "a facilitator of the individual who should head the ‘most wanted' list in TT" and about Yasin Abu Bakr being a regular visitor to the office of Senator Joan Yuille-Williams. Whatever anxiety Mr Panday may now create by these references, there is no denying his government's own romance with Bakr and the Muslimeen during and after the polls of 1995. Bakr, in fact, was honoured by being the first to be granted an "audience" with Prime Minister Panday after the elections, a reward it seems for the contribution which the Jamaat had made to the UNC elections victory. It is an open secret that the Muslimeen provided a security force for UNC candidates and virtually ran the URP programme under the Sheriff.
Again, whatever points Mr Panday may score in accusing the Prime Minister of displaying dictatorial tendencies and in declaring doom on the country's democracy, we have, by comparison, the UNC leader's own performance in office, specifically his appointment of seven losing candidates in the 2000 elections to the Senate and to ministerial positions. In this controversy, Mr Panday not only provoked the opposition of the Press and public but also that of then President ANR Robinson who refused for some time to swear in the appointees. Again, Mr Panday's condemnation of the PNM government's attempt to reform the Police Service through the Reform Bill and his fervent championship of the role of the Police Service Commission is deeply puzzling in light of the fact that the Bill was, in fact, the product of the UNC government which they had brought to Parliament in July 2001. Indeed, when he tabled the legislation in the House, Mr Panday hailed the Police Management Authority, which was designed to replace the PSC, as an independent body.
The Opposition Leader may be on more solid ground in dealing with the matter of transparency, raising a number of questions which appear to require a response from the Government, most notably "the raging allegation that there has already been a $20 million cost overrun on the construction of the Scarborough Regional Hospital project after only the foundation has been constructed." Also, one can hardly fault Mr Panday for using the criticism of the country's economic strategy contained in the recent IADB assessment, "Trinidad and Tobago, long term challenges and opportunities." The crux of the report is that TT's natural-resource-driven growth lacks long-term sustainable competitive advantage. "That is, successful firms that innovate, upgrade and export complex products by staying abreast of consumers' needs." Put more bluntly, TT has been de-capitalising the country by converting natural resources into currency. The criticism is valid and vital, and demands a studied reply from the Government.
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