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Cabinet Reshuffle - Power of Patronage
Posted: Thursday, November 13, 2003

by George Alleyne, Newsday TT

Friday's Cabinet reshuffle should not be viewed as an indictment of the Ministerial competence of those who came out at the receiving end, save perhaps in one instance, and even then just barely, but rather as an example of the power of the Prime Minister under the Westminster system.

So that the shifting around of a Cabinet Minister by a Prime Minister under this system, dismissing him or demoting him may very well not be an indication that the Minister is under-performing or even not performing at all, but an occasion to seek to roll back any profile he may have built, whether in the Cabinet or the nation or both. The Westminister system consciously allows for this Prime Ministerial power, at which a former UK Cabinet Minister, Anthony Benn, would lash out in an agonised cry in October of 1977, declaring it an "intolerable level of patronage." However, although convention in the United Kingdom allows for an inferred brake on the authority of a Prime Minister, through the ability of the ruling Party's power brokers to "persuade" a Prime Minister to step down, no such check exists in Trinidad and Tobago today. Admittedly, some Members of Parliament of the then Opposition Party, the United Labour Front, led by Raffique Shah, had the then Leader of the Opposition, Basdeo Panday, removed from Office following a petition to the President.

The last intervention against a British Prime Minister was with respect to Margaret Thatcher, while others within living memory, who lost Office through intervention have included Neville Chamberlain, who was forced to give way to Winston Churchill in 1940, and Anthony Eden in 1956. The Trinidad and Tobago Constitution, however, is so worded, as to effectively discourage any challenge to the Prime Minister's leadership, if only because he can request the President to dissolve Parliament. The political future of Cabinet Ministers, who trigger such a situation, can be at risk particularly as they may be viewed as being responsible for the "collapse" of the Government. I shift gears temporarily. I have already dealt at some length in an earlier Column with the Budget document faux pas, re the perceived special need for the targetting of Afro-Trinidadian males for programmes of the College of Science, Technology and Applied Arts of Trinidad and Tobago (COSTAATT). Many persons have held that support for this document by two Ministers gave Prime Minister Manning a certain leverage in the recent Cabinet reshuffle.

I still maintain that although the problem of under-achievement by troubling numbers of a defined ethnic group within the society exists, nonetheless it should not have been developed as a policy position of the Administration with respect to admissions to COSTAATT et cetera. I am not saying that it should be swept under the proverbial carpet. It has to be admitted and dealt with. The question is how? If we pretend to ignore its existence, whether deliberately or otherwise, and do nothing about it, then we deprive not only the under-achievers of the right to have an imbalance corrected, and in the process assist them in making a positive contribution to the development of Trinidad and Tobago, but ipso facto the nation stumbles on the road to 2020. I do not tend to see under-achievers in an ethnic light. Rather I see them, whatever their ethnic group or groups, as Trinidadians and Tobagonians needing help. The State will have to develop policies and programmes to assist all nationals, regardless of their ethnic origin, in moving forward.

We can begin by granting an immediate amnesty to all illegal immigrants, who have been here for at least five years, and/or who may have children born in Trinidad and Tobago. This will open windows of opportunity for their children to access, initially, primary education without the parents feeling the need to keep them away from school to avoid the spectre of deportation. I switch gears once more.The Prime Minister, who is also Political Leader of the People's National Movement, and fresh from the stunning victory of (what has been described as) his slate of candidates at the recent Party Convention, may have viewed a Cabinet reshuffle as a vehicle to convey who was in charge. Understandably, talk of a Cabinet reshuffle had been rumoured for several weeks, but it is possible that Manning would not have risked having so far reaching a reshuffle had his "slate" of candidates been soundly defeated at the Party's polls.

His relieving Dr. Keith Rowley of his portfolio of Minister of Planning and Development and assigning him instead to the Ministry of Housing, was instructive. Interestingly enough, there were persons who were insisting that because the present Administration had made housing a critical plank in its programme that Rowley was certain to be outstanding as Housing Minister. This clearly is absurd. What the general public does not seem to appreciate is that the much talked about housing programme has been effectively slowed down. A crucial reason for this is that the National Housing Authority has not been as swift in the making of payments to contractors as would have made the housing initiative much further advanced than it has been to date. Of course the argument can always be employed, and even accepted by persons with a penchant for allowing others to think for them, that it would take sometime between the passing of the 2003-2004 Budget and the disbursement of funds. However, the NHA problem of tardy disbursement existed long before the Budget, and should not be viewed as a problem arising out of it.

The point I make here is this: If the present position continues with respect to the disbursement of funds by the National Housing Authority, then it will be difficult for the Ministry of Housing to succeed in the 10,000 houses a year target, or anywhere near to it. What Dr. Rowley will have to do is seek to deal as firmly as possible with the stumbling blocks. I wish to make this clear, however, that the National Housing Authority is not being perverse, but that the problem of slow and/or delayed payments is endemic in the public sector. I wish also to state that nothing which I may have written should be construed to mean that the Prime Minister assigned Dr. Rowley the Housing Ministry for him to fail.

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