On Tuesday–August 10–the People’s National Movement (PNM) will mark the first anniversary of its second term under the leadership of Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.
Having captured 22 of the 41 seats in the 2020 general election while the United National Congress gained 19, the PNM re-assumed office as the COVID-19 pandemic began heightening.
Fast-track one year later, and facing disruptions, Rowley’s administration had to deal with more than 1,100 COVID deaths, an increase in positive cases, a collapsing economy, soaring food prices, closure of businesses and citizens being thrown on the breadline–all effects of a faceless virus.
The Government has had to stagger from one crisis to another to keep the country together amid condemnation from some quarters.
In assessing the Government’s performance in the last 12 months, four political analysts shared mixed views.
Hamid Ghany: Opposition unable to effectively challenge Govt
Looking back at their performance, political analyst Dr Hamid Ghany said the Government has been able to survive a general election in August 2020 and the subsequent deterioration of the COVID-19 situation primarily because of the inability of the Opposition to effectively challenge and hold them accountable.
He said the electoral evidence can be seen in their reduced popularity and reduced seat majority in last year’s general election and the less than stellar performance of the PNM in the Tobago House of Assembly elections this year to end in a tie with the PDP (Progressive Democratic Patriots). Also, the UNC’s victory in the PNM stronghold of Arima Central in a local government by-election on the same day. These electoral performances are indicative of their reduced popularity, Ghany said.
“Despite this, the PNM communications team has been able to stay ahead of some of their difficulties and the Opposition has not been able to deliver the knockout punch in the communications arena. A good example of this was the mass vaccine fiasco in which Dr Rowley was able to call it “one bad day” coupled with an apology–end of story even though the fiasco lasted more than one day.”
Ghany said the indiscipline in the ranks of the Opposition on the issue of vaccines–with different MPs having different public views on the issue–opened the door for the Government to exploit that indiscipline
“This allowed Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh to publicly call out the Opposition MPs to take a stand on the vaccines which only opened the division in the ranks of the Opposition.”
Since Rowley’s public disagreements with Patrick Manning in the 2008-2010 period, Ghany said, no other PNM MP has ventured out publicly to make statements that contradict other MPs on their side.
“It is that political discipline that has assisted the party, in the current political climate, to maintain their grip on power despite their reduced popularity.”
Despite the border closure from March 22, 2020, to July 17, 2021, the COVID-19 response faltered in April 2021 and reached crisis proportions in May and June 2021.
“The PNM communications team was able to brief Prime Minister Rowley to introduce a competing narrative for this by blaming the public vigils for Andrea Bharatt in February 2021 which challenged the Opposition’s call out of his public invitation in March 2021 for people to go to Tobago for the Easter period and that “‘Tobago was the place to be.'”
Thousands went to Tobago. There was a spike in infections. And the Andrea Bharatt vigil comment provided a competing narrative.
“At the end of the day, the difference between the Government and the Opposition have been, one, a superior political communications strategy by the Government, and two, political indiscipline in the ranks of the Opposition,” Ghany said.
He said this has “helped the Government to survive their diminished popularity in the face of adverse COVID-19 policy challenges on higher rates of infection and deaths which the Government has not been able to control.”
One area of communications weakness by the Government, Ghany said, has been the mixed messaging by the Health Minister over its vaccine rollout plans.
“These changing messages have confused many people and may have contributed to some vaccine hesitancy to venture out to get vaccinated because of uncertainty over the need for appointments or walk-ins or waiting for a call or home visits. There are too many messages out there and they are confusing many people, especially the thousands who are yet to cross the digital divide as a pathway to getting vaccinated.”
Winford James: Something about PM’s personality turns people off
Political analyst Winford James said except for the continuation of a few projects, the Government has not done anything significant.
“I don’t see anything I can call major,” James said. He said the country does not have much to boast about. James said while Rowley promised to continue incomplete projects in 2021, many were left in abeyance due to funding constraints.
International organisations have praised the Government for its initial management of the virus, and according to James, “that is the Government’s strongest claim to good governance over the last year.”
James said some people are still unhappy with the Prime Minister’s personality, while others are satisfied with his outspokenness.
“But there is something about his personality that turns people off. People who could have been his friends, his supporters…”
James assessed five ministers–health, education, national security, finance and social development and family services–whose ministries were at the centre stage of the pandemic, forcing them to step up to the plate.
*Despite misleading the public a few times and “misspeaking”, James believes Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh is an empathetic man.
“People…the average man sees him as a man truly concerned, caring and empathetic. And I think he gives the Government a good face. Never mind people laughed at him when he said tears came to his eyes a few weeks ago. And that might be melodramatic. The point is, when you listen to him, you get the impression that this man cares and has empathy which is not the same thing you can say about many other ministers, if only because you don’t hear them talk.”
In May, Deyalsingh confessed he “wept” when he saw people on the Brian Lara Promenade liming and not wearing masks.
James felt the biggest mistake the Government made in the last year was allowing walk-in vaccinations at health centres in the height of the pandemic. “Most of the people who turned up were the elderly who had to stand in the blistering sun or rain to get their jabs.” Some were even turned away.
The PM eventually apologised for the vaccine fiasco, stating it was “a total failure” and accepted full responsibility for the matter.
“There were misjudgements and poor decision making and the Government had to put its tail between its leg and say sorry. The effect of that…the story died.”
But all in all, James said, Deyalsingh “has not done a bad job in my judgement.”
*James said had Government heeded the warning of financial experts to shift our reliance from oil and gas five years ago, Finance Minister Colm Imbert would not have had to borrow from financial institutions and dip into the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund to keep public servants employed and bring financial relief to private-sector employees who lost their jobs as a result of two lockdowns.
“We have grown too fat, lazy and comfortable on the fortunes from oil and gas.” He said we are now paying a heavy price for this.
With no alternatives to fall back on, James said Imbert had to cut here and there and sought loans to provide relief to those in need which would have put him in a precarious position.
“The problem is how do you get out of that situation whether COVID ends or not.”
This, he said, needs to be answered.
James said if the virus continues, T&T would be on a slippery slope.
“We are going to crash. You can’t keep your private sector industries on lockdown indefinitely. You have to take hard decisions. We must bite the bullet. Over this year, the Government has very little to report in terms of productivity and increased earnings.”
*Weighing in on Minister of Social Development and Family Services Donna Cox’s performance, James said her “there are some people in need and some people in greed” utterance could not go unnoticed.
Cox made the remark in June following long queues with no social distancing at South Park to collect food hampers which sparked public outrage.
In her defence, Cox said her comment was misinterpreted, pointing out that some individuals genuinely block destitute people from getting aid.
“Her statement was unfortunate in the way she expressed herself. Obviously, she was under some kind of pressure. It’s a kind of emotionally charged statement that would offend people. So there is a political price to be paid. What it is, I couldn’t say. But she has lost some supporters.”
James said most politicians tend to make untoward statements when they speak out.
“Politicians easily put their foot in their mouths. They don’t have self restrain to choose their words carefully.”
James said the PM was in the habit of doing this. “So they (ministers) have an example in him or maybe even be influenced by him as well.”
One issue James said he was not impressed with was the length of time vulnerable people had to wait for their grants. But contended that the “Government has shown that it is willing to bring relief to people.”
*Assessing the performance of the National Security Ministry, James said this year was better than previous years.
“While there are murders, we haven’t had employment-related deaths. Gary Griffith has put the criminals on the run. That is credit to the Government appointing him in the first place.”
Even though Fitzgerald Hinds has been holding down the National Security Ministry for four months, James said he expected him to be more engaging with the public.
In recent times, James said, he noticed Hinds’ predecessor Stuart Young speaking on national security matters while Hinds who is known for his orating skills stayed in the background.
“We wonder what is going on here. Why is it on matters we thought he (Hinds) would pronounce on, it is Stuart Young who would speak? I don’t know if the Prime Minister is saying that Stuart Young is better equipped and knowledge-wise, perhaps understanding wise. That is a question you guys would have to ask Rowley.”
*James praised Education Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly for leading the charge in the education sector.
“This lady is getting involved in policy. She has been speaking about SEA, the Concordat and integrating academics with technical and vocational training.”
She also established committees to help improve the education system.
“Here is somebody who knows how to pick out the pertinent issues. She is not doing as much as I would like but she is talking about these issues and I suppose we will see the fruit of those ideas engaging her mind not too long from now. I think she is on the right track.”
James said Gadsby-Dolly had outshone her predecessor Anthony Garcia.
John La Guerre gives Govt, PM a 7 out of 10 rating
Political analyst Prof John La Guerre felt the Government has not done too badly, giving them a seven out of ten rating for their achievements. He also gave the PM a “seven out of ten grade” for taking decisive action in the height of the pandemic, stating the COVID deaths and positive cases could have been far worst.
*”There have been some mistakes but in the context of a pandemic under which we have been operating, I think all things considered they have done reasonably well. Both Prime Minister Rowley and Deyalsingh must be commended for the way they handled the COVID issue, particularly in 2020. And since then, within the limitations of international acquisition of vaccines, I think the health minister has performed reasonably well.”
Even though Deyalsingh made mistakes when he spoke at his tri-weekly COVID-19 media briefing, La Guerre gave him an eight out of ten grade.
“I think the major problem he faced was the acquisition of vaccines. But they have overcome that hurdle. The ministry was not really prepared for the problems they began to face. They did not have the time to put the various measures in place, especially when Deyalsingh called on the public to go to health centres for their walk-in jabs. That turned into a nationwide disaster. The pandemic imposed certain responsibilities on them which they could not escape and sometimes the population had to pay the price.”
But generally, he said, the Government held things together.
*Even though citizens’ movements have been restricted under the 9 pm to 5 am curfew, La Guerre said National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds has not been able to reduce serious crimes and murders.
Since Hinds’ appointment in April, La Guerre said he has been “reticent” as opposed to his predecessor Stuart Young who was far more assertive and communicative.
“I was expecting Hinds to communicate more with the public but he has stayed in the background which has not worked to his advantage.”
As a new person on the job, La Guerre said it would be unfair to evaluate Hinds.
La Guerre said one area that continues to be a thorn in the ministry’s side is the protection of our porous borders, citing the first case of the Brazilian variant was detected in April in a Venezuelan migrant.
He said the variant came into the country even though our borders were closed for 16 months.
“It showed we fell down somewhere in surveillance of our borders.”
*Switching students from a school setting to home-based learning has had its fair share of problems for families and Education Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly, La Guerre said.
“Many of the children were not laptop equipped and lacked internet connections which caused a setback in learning for many students. This could have been the one cause for some children to drop out of school.”
But Le Guerre said the minister has been trying to address a host of problems the best way she can, bearing in mind that the Government has been faced with dwindling finances.
“She is fairly new on the job but she has done well. I think her performance, given the context in which she had to operate, was quite admirable. I would give her a seven out of ten for her performance taking all factors into account.”
As a mother, La Guerre said, the minister seems to genuinely care about the welfare and academic achievements of our nation’s children which will work in her favour.
*La Guerre cited Social Development and Family Services Minister Donna Cox’s “some people in need and some in greed” statement as her biggest blunder.
“Her statement was unfortunate. But all things aside, Minister Cox has been delivering since taking up the ministerial post. She’s a hard worker. Her ministry is large and the services she has to provide to the population is quite demanding.”
La Guerre said since taking up the post, Cox has demonstrated care and compassion for the vulnerable in society, more so in the pandemic.
“She is a right fit for the ministry and we have seen this when she goes out to assist those in need. I would say the minister has been addressing these cases in a humane way. She’s bringing a human touch to her projects. I think people will forgive her for that initial blunder. Time will tell.”
In appraising her work, La Guerre gave Cox a grade six.
*Given the challenges Finance Minister Colm Imbert has had to face, La Guerre credited him for his work.
“It has not been easy for Minister Imbert especially this year. But he has managed to make things work and has to be credited for this.”
La Guerre said accessing loans and withdrawing from the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund to temporarily help the unemployed would have been necessary.
“The economy has shrunk. Very soon our purse will run dry. What is even more important in the context of the COVID situation, there will be a huge demand on Government to provide for the population.”
While Imbert has been managing this reasonably well, La Guerre said at some point the minister would have to draw a line.
“This cannot be sustained for much longer. There will have to be a cut-off point”
Help would have to come from NGOs and other organisations.
La Guerre said he was yet to hear or see a plan to revive the economy which will be no easy task for Imbert. Help would have to come from NGOs and other organisations, he added.
Maukesh Basdeo: It was a very trying period, B-plus for PM
Assessing Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley’s performance in the first year of his second term, political analyst Maukesh Basdeo gave him a B-plus.
“What we have seen is that the Prime Minister has held it together over this first year in office. He has done well. I would give him a B-plus. It has been a very trying period with all the health issues and securing vaccines,” he said.
*Basdeo said while the Government handled the virus fairly well in its early stage last year, concerns began to raise when the COVID deaths and positive cases started to spike in April.
“You had to wonder if the Health Ministry was prepared to deal with the infectious disease. You had to ask if the policy they had in place was flexible enough to meet the sudden surge in the numbers and deaths.”
Basdeo said another issue was Sinopharm being the main vaccine available.
One area that came under question for Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh would have been the data provided.
“There is also confusion relating to the data put out in the public domain. Then you had a lot of issues relating to the health care system.”
Overall, Basdeo said, we are moving to herd immunity.
*One shortcoming in the National Security Ministry, Basdeo said, is illegal immigrants coming into our shores during the pandemic.
“This is where the ministry came in for a lot of flak for its inability to secure the sea borders.”
Basdeo said people kept posting boatloads of people illegally entering the seaport on social media without a Coast Guard vessel in sight.
“This created an uneasiness among the population because of our closeness to Venezuela which had confirmed cases of the Brazilian variant.”
In April, a Venezuelan national was the first person in T&T with the Brazilian variant strain, which confirmed our fears.
He said the repatriation of citizens was also a contentious matter.
*Basdeo said the lockdown affected the Government’s ability to collect VAT and direct taxation. Such decreases in revenue, Basdeo said, would have been a major issue for Finance Minister Colm Imbert who has had to do a juggling act to acquire finances.
As the country’s debt continued to mount, Basdeo said financing projects would have been difficult.
In March, Basdeo recalled, Rowley told the nation they could not fund another lockdown.
However, when the second lockdown was imposed in May, Basdeo said the Government offered salary relief and income support grants for people who were retrenched or suspended from their jobs.
“Our financial resources at this point are limited in how we can bail out. The pandemic has already claimed victims.”
Basdeo said the worst was yet to come.
“When businesses reopen people will see increases in prices all around. This means the cost of living will increase which will push the trade union sector to rally for an increase in wages.”
He said it would be interesting to see what measures Imbert will come up with in the 2023 budget which is due in the next six to seven weeks.
*Referring to the Auditor General’s 2020 report which highlighted the issue of double-dipping with some applicants of the salary relief and income support grant to the tune of millions of dollars, Basdeo said this showed inefficiencies and gaps in the systems of two ministries–Social Development and Finance.
Basdeo said Social Development Minister Donna Cox’s “there are some people in need and some people in greed” comment “touched a sore point” for many who felt offended.
*Of concern for Basdeo was whether children have access to continued teaching.
“This is going to be reflective when children go back into the classroom next month. Will they be at the same level? Teachers will be able to see the difference. Some children will be left behind. The learning gap will be visible.”
Another issue will be removing children who have been introduced to online classes at home and placing them in a classroom for the first time.
“How will they adjust?
Basdeo said this was where Education Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly would be tested.