The Peoples National Movement’s policy concerning local government reform has been termed by the political leader as one of devolution. In principle, the policy would entail the transfer of power to the local level. In the case of Trinidad and Tobago, the PNM has voiced a commitment to remove the Ministry of Local Government and to implement and ensure that the 15 regional corporations which comprise Trinidad and Tobago would receive funding directly from the Ministry of Finance.
The potential for this policy to vastly improve the standard of living of citizens is enormous. If implemented effectively, this could improve the efficiency of government expenditure on a large scale. However, if implemented hastily and without the proper legislative framework it could prove a disaster.
Without question the number one problem in Trinidad and Tobago after crime and violence is corruption - most notably corruption in the public sector and in government. The lack of checks and balances on the national level makes it even more questionable as to whether it would be possible for proper over-sight to be had on the local government level. Trinidad and Tobago’s high level of revenues, especially over the Manning decade (2002 – 2010) has allowed the nation to be cushioned from the drastic fall in the standard of living that is usually concomitant with the high level of corruption which has taken place over the past five years. On the 8th September 2015, the PNM may be left to pick up the pieces of the last five years. Ensuring the proper implementation of local government reform would be at the center of this.
The PNM’s loudly trumpeted ‘whistle-blower’ legislation could only prove to be a dent on the surface of reducing corruption on all levels. Realistically speaking there are very limited checks on government in Trinidad and Tobago. As opposed to the Presidential System of government (ideally in the USA) the Westminster System ensures that the Legislative and the Executive arms of government are tied together, with the President (in T&T) a complete bystander, thus leaving the Parliament as simply a bully-pulpit for the Opposition. The Integrity Commission in Trinidad and Tobago is usually poorly formed and inept when acting and with a Police Service having a detection rate of less than 10%, there is no hiding from reality. Civil society usually lack a coherent voice and Labor in Trinidad seem to lack any understanding of the notion of contentment.
The only possible check on potential corruption on the local government level would be the Minister of Finance’s approval for realizing funds.
In the extreme, the mid to long term result could therefore be drastic and disproportionate levels in development of certain parts of the country, most notably in Trinidad, if a Finance Minister decides to hold back on funding for whatever reason – corruption being one example.
On the immediate level, local government elections would become more important. However it would simply become an exercise of choosing your poison on both the local and national level. It is possible to note that regardless of this, some regions may thrive, simply by relying on genuinely good and moral people, but we have seen where this has taken us. It is more probable for an immoral and corrupt climate to overcome a few good persons than the other way around. So we must depend on making the climate one of anti-corruption, and this starts with ensuring that there are consequences for corrupt activity.
The solution lies therefore in ensuring that the security apparatus, legislative framework (which includes anti-corruption laws of a strict nature) and relevant state bodies for assessing local government expenditure are firmly in place.
The PNM has historically been good at forming and implementing policy and usually when policy implementation has gone wrong the cushion of a high revenue stream, due to high oil prices, has proven to work to the country’s benefit. Efficiency has always been the weak-point of a country as rich and small as Trinidad and Tobago.
The history of Trinidad and Tobago has showed us that the PNM has never been a party deficient in policy ideas. One could argue that the entire institutional structure of the country has been conceived and implemented by the Peoples National Movement at different stages in our country’s history. The issue at hand is whether the potential cracks in the policy could be dealt with in advance, before full-scale implementation. Trinidadians and Tobagonians lament the lack of transparency in the awarding of contracts on the national level and have continuously demanded reform, which has proven politically impossible in recent years. How convenient would it have been to have dealt with it from the start? The opportunity is here with regard to local government reform.
The last five years of the Peoples Partnership government shows how easily the institutions of Trinidad and Tobago could be dismantled and openly attacked with little or no consequences. There must be checks and balances on the local government level, if such a large-scale shift of power and responsibility is going to take place. Most seem unaware of the potential implications if this policy goes wrong – the PNM must get it right.
Mikhail E.D. Byng