Trinidad & Tobago: Prime Minister Keith Rowley – the Second Coming of ANR Robinson?

 

Current Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago Dr Keith Rowley has something in common with the twin island republic’s late 3rd Prime Minister (1986-1991) Arthur N.R. Robinson, and it’s not the fact that they both hail from Tobago.

Rowley led the People’s National Movement back into government in September 2015 after 5 years out of office, becoming the 4th PNM leader to ascend to the office of prime minister and affording the party the opportunity to add to its running total of 37 years in government since the country’s independence. That total now stands at 38 and a half years out of T&T’s 54 and a half years of nationhood.  The remaining 16 years are accounted for by the National Alliance for Reconstruction (1986-91), the United National Congress (1995-2001) and the UNC-dominated People’s Partnership (2010-15).

ANR Robinson led the NAR coalition: a hotchpotch of quite simply everyone but the PNM on the country’s political landscape at the time, made up in almost equal parts of groups that had never been associated with the PNM and disgruntled past members (or is it ex-members who had seen the light?) of the party formed by Dr Eric Williams. If I may indulge in a silly pro wrestling pop culture reference, it was like the NWO in WCW circa 1996-2000; Robinson, future Prime Minister Basdeo Panday and Karl Hudson-Phillips were Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall competing with the WWE (the PNM) and the group later split into NWO Hollywood (the UNC) and NWO Wolfpac (what was left of the NAR under Robinson).

The centre-right NAR’s policy line was one characterised by a serious dose of belt tightening austerity, against a backdrop of the 1980s coming to be known as “the lost decade” for developing countries around the world, many of which were worse off by the end of the 80s than they had been at the start due to some combination of falling commodity prices, famine and the debt crisis.

The 1986 NAR election manifesto states that “the NAR will pursue a clear and unequivocal policy of promotion of initiative, self-reliance, self-help and creativity in all sections of the national community”. In his 1987 Independence Day speech PM Robinson stated the following:

  • “An NAR Government will promote an entrepreneurial spirit among our citizens making them active agents in the economic life of the nation, rather than passive dependents of the State […].”
  • “We must become moulders and shapers of our own destinies rather than mere pawns on the chess board of history.”
  • “In the new spirit of self-help, individuals and communities must be encouraged to mobilize their own resources, to maximise the use of their talents and productive capacity.”
  • “Each one of us in the national community must face the challenge, as they say, to get up and get.”

In the 1980s timeframe context of these quotes, the Reagan-esque “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” attitude is clear to see, as is the Thatcher-esque preference for individual action and concomitant aversion to anything resembling a welfare state. Fox News’ Sean Hannity would have given Robinson’s speech a standing ovation had he been on hand.

Stop expecting other people to be responsible for every minute aspect of your life in this nanny state that you want to create! (Sean Hannity, Conservative Political Commentator, Fox News)

In the contemporary case of PM Rowley, having less ministers, marginally lower salaries for remaining ministers, revisiting university tuition funding provisions under the GATE programme and reducing fuel subsidies are some of the means employed to achieve the desired end of radically reducing public expenditure.

Mirror Image 

When a new government comes into power it is par for the course for it to lay out the litany of woes of unwise policy choices made by its predecessor and establish that everything it does going forward would be an attempt to reverse the deleterious effects of the previous inept administration.  As such, casually listening to or taking a cursory glance at government statements to this effect would not leave a lasting impression on anyone.

In the case of Rowley and Robinson, however, taking a closer look at the statements they made on similar issues at similar points during their terms in power is startling in that the resemblance is uncanny, as the table below shows. The quotes come from the 1987 address by the Honourable Prime Minister A.N.R Robinson on the Occasion of the 25th Anniversary of Trinidad & Tobago’s independence, a September 2016 address to the nation by PM Dr Rowley, and an October 2016 speech marking the launch of a school improvement programme in Laventille by the current PM.

One would be forgiven for thinking that PM Dr Rowley drew a bit too much inspiration from his fellow Tobagonian’s speeches, à la Melania Trump lifting lines from a Michelle Obama speech last year.

Getting the country back on track: 

PM Keith Rowley (PNM, 2015-) 

PM ANR Robinson (NAR, 1986-91) 

“Step by step we have been putting the modalities in place to steer the nation’s ship of state towards recovery and restoration following that traumatic and painful period of five years of reckless, irresponsible and woefully corrupt governance”.

“Under the PNM we were virtually becoming a nation of zombies, hooked on the psychology and culture of dependence […]. We had to get our bearings once again after the ship of state had gone adrift.”

 

The “it’s the economy’s fault” part: 

PM Keith Rowley (PNM, 2015-) 

PM ANR Robinson (NAR, 1986-91) 

“My government took office in September 2015, against the noticeable backdrop of energy revenues collapsing precipitously by as much as 70% or more. […] Whilst there are some activities afoot to raise the 2016 figures going forward the overall trend is downwards and troubling.”

“the matter-of-fact situation is that the government is limited in its scope of operation because of the unavailability of funds.”

 

 

Run a guilt trip on the people and tell them the government they elected isn’t going to do much for them, part 1: 

PM Keith Rowley (PNM, 2015-) 

PM ANR Robinson (NAR, 1986-91) 

“Every road to be built in this country must be built by the Government, every school, every health centre, every this, every that because in this country for the last generation or two we have grown up on the Government. Well you better begin to get weaned off the Government because the Government’s shoulder cannot carry the weight anymore.”

“The sacred task and vision of the NAR Government would be to wean a generation away from the culture of dependence and to nurture a new generation on the values of sturdy self-reliance and initiative.”

 

Run a guilt trip on the people and tell them the government they elected isn’t going to do much for them, part 2: 

PM Keith Rowley (PNM, 2015-) 

PM ANR Robinson (NAR, 1986-91) 

“Every road to be built in this country must be built by the Government, every school, every health centre, every this, every that because in this country for the last generation or two we have grown up on the Government. Well you better begin to get weaned off the Government because the Government’s shoulder cannot carry the weight anymore.”

“the days when the treasury was an unending cornucopia of financial largesse are long since over. Even if such a role were desirable, the state can no longer play the part of big brother to whom we can cling for our livelihood.”

 

Find time to boast:

PM Keith Rowley (PNM, 2015-) 

PM ANR Robinson (NAR, 1986-91) 

“This year’s national budget has allowed citizens the greatest level of participation in the country’s development ever.”

“Never in the history of our country has there been so much involvement in the planning and policy-making process by such a broad cross-section of the society.”

 

Wax philosophical while washing your hands of people’s problems: 

PM Keith Rowley (PNM, 2015-) 

PM ANR Robinson (NAR, 1986-91)

“This country’s problems will not be corrected simply with more money but must include a change in attitude.”

“[…] This philosophy represents a radical departure, a radical break with the thinking of the past regime.”

 

 

Why not boast and grandstand a bit more? : 

PM Keith Rowley (PNM, 2015-) 

PM ANR Robinson (NAR, 1986-91) 

“The first (task) was to rebuild our country and our economy, restore confidence, equity and social justice and enhance and improve every area of national life. We assured you that we had prescribed a broad based suite of detailed policy initiatives, projects, programmes and measures that will lift us out of the chaos that had been created by the previous administration and put Trinidad and Tobago back on the road to growth, development, social peace, economic stability and transformation where all citizens will get their fair share of national resources and receive good, honest, equitable and transparent Government.”

“We have been able to assemble competent teams of nationals who are working overtime, and selflessly, on the numerous problems that we face. […] The work of these patriotic citizens is already showing results and will increasingly bear fruit over time. Our Joint Consultative Council has arrived at agreement on two very important documents which are the prelude to a social compact on which it is agreed that discussions will continue.”

 

 

PM Rowley’s message closely echoes that of his fellow Tobagonian predecessor. His comments about people depending on the government too much drew a great deal of criticism, and he ended up saying that they had been misinterpreted and that he was simply talking up the benefits of public/private partnerships in delivering services to the citizenry.

Such a clarification about the “bitter remedies” in the way of economic policy that are being embarked upon due to revenue shortages is the least that could be expected from the leader of a party that sells itself as being vaguely left of centre. Truth be told, though, there isn’t anything remotely leftist about the policy agenda pursued by the current PNM government. PM Dr Rowley’s is quite a different discourse from that of his immediate predecessor the late Patrick Manning, as well as from that of much derided pre-NAR Prime Minister George Chambers, who still chose to focus on what the government could and did continue to do in the face of economic difficulty.

“We are better off mixing and applying our reduction remedies on our own volition, especially when experience has shown us that these externally imposed structural adjustment programs have such devastating effects, most often disproportionately on those in our society who are least able to bear the burden.” (PM Dr Keith Rowley)

Political scientists in the US specialised in the Caribbean region have identified Trinidad & Tobago as having what could be called indirect welfare; indirect in that as opposed to other countries where the social safety net consists of cash payments to individuals in the form of unemployment benefits for example, the government in Trinidad, specifically from the turn of the century onwards, committed to allocating huge sums to programmes meant to ensure that jobs were created for those who otherwise would not have one, while equipping these individuals with skills with which to subsequently move into other employment. We all know someone who was an OJT trainee in some department of some ministry that didn’t particularly correspond to any knowledge or skills they may have possessed, and spent their time idling at a desk for somewhere between 6 and 24 months, getting up only to make the odd photocopy or to go on their lunch break.

Unless it is simply a case of his economic message fitting in with the context of hard times, PM Dr Rowley appears to be noticeably less of a proponent than PM Manning was of this or any type of welfare state. That said, he has not eliminated the OJT programme, yet. It can be said the PM Dr Rowley has refashioned the PNM to suit his ideological leaning. That leaning is not a left-wing one: a bona fide leftist head of government would hardly beam with pride in announcing that they had done the country a great service and shown the citizenry the example to follow by taking a whopping 5% pay cut on a salary already legions higher than what average and even well-to-do citizens earn.

This is, at any rate, far from unprecedented: the UK Labour party was pushed towards the centre by Tony Blair during the New Labour years only to be pulled back in a leftward direction by current leader Jeremy Corbyn – much to the chagrin of Blair, the UMP party in France (now called Les Républicains) was dragged rightwards and down into the gutter of identity politics by one-term President Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012, Marine Le Pen has brought the National Front party founded by her father in from the cold and shed in the process so many of the standpoints most identifiable with the far-right that observers have wondered aloud whether the party is even right wing at all any more, and former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls was seen as attempting to steer the Socialist Party decidedly rightwards, particularly with his emphasis on national security and attempts to liberalise the country’s straightjacket labour laws, even going as far as once saying that the party should adopt a new name as he saw the “Socialist” label as outdated. As for Trump, I barely need to explain how he has short-circuited the Republican Party.

The fact that both Robinson and Rowley swept into office with a message of personal responsibility and slashing the role of the State in the economy is enough to make one think that Trinidad-born former Lieutenant-Governor of Florida Jennifer Carroll was right to state that West Indians, in terms of their conservative values, are natural Republicans. The current PM at the very least seems to be one, as was ANR Robinson.

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