By: Tony Best
Up until recently, David Abdullah wore three influential hats in Trinidad and Tobago.
The first is that of General Secretary of the powerful Oilfield Workers Trade Union while the second is political leader of the Movement for Social Justice. The third which he gave up a few months ago was that of a senator in the upper chamber of the twin island republic which celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence the other day.
Abdullah, a sensitive man with decades of political and trade union activism in Port of Spain and elsewhere in the country, took the Movement for Social Justice out of the People’s Partnership, the coalition arrangement which brought down Patrick Manning and the People’s National Movement in the last general election and ushered into office a government led by Kamla Persad Bissessar, the first woman to lead Caricom’s richest member-state.
“There wasn’t any doubt that people wanted a change in government,” Abdullah told a crowded room at a Brooklyn middle school, reflecting on the tumultuous events that eventually forced Manning to call an election at least two years before they were due. “But in the end after the coalition assumed office we felt we had to leave.”
In a 30-minute plus presentation which was followed by a question and answer session that took the form of a town meeting, the trade union and political leader painted a picture of a country that while being far better off than its Caribbean neighbors but could face some serious economic headwinds in the years ahead. The factors behind the looming problems ranged from a decline in oil production, down to 80,000 barrels a day from a high of more than 200,000 barrels; proven gas reserves that were also falling; government deficits recorded four years in a row; and a stagnant construction sector. Then there were falling international energy prices, which were dragging down government revenue.
Yes, he said, the global financial crisis hadn’t hit Trinidad and Tobago with the ferocity that hurt its Caricom neighbors, but the negative fall-out was still a fact of life.
Add the bail-out of CLICO policy holders to the list of potential woes and it would become clear that the 50 year old sovereign state was far from being in the best of financial health.
The financial problems, he explained, were being seen in the drop in corporate spending and by in the fact bank lending had dropped, partly because consumers, concerned about the future weren’t interested in taking on large amounts of debt.
Abdullah, who was introduced to the audience of least 100 Trinidadians on the chilly Saturday afternoon by Roger Toussaint, a former President of the Transport Workers Union in New York, said that he left the Senate in June when the MSJ quit the partnership because of unfulfilled promises and the emergence of corruption in the public sector.
Just as important, was the way the “Partnership” operated.
“The partnership did not function as a partnership outside of government. What does that mean? It means that ministers were meeting in cabinet. People met in parliamentary caucuses to discuss legislation and who would speak and so on,” he explained. “The government functioned as a coalition, of sorts. But if that situation of the government functioning as a coalition (continued), the party that has the most numbers in the coalition will hold sway. In cabinet, there is one Prime Minister and if the Prime Minister said this is the way we are going in a cabinet situation, it therefore meant that the UNC’s dominance in the government was not being checked by the other partners in the partnership.”
He cited alleged instances of corruption in the awarding of government contracts and said that after he brought some of the allegations to the Prime Minister’s attention the charges were not effectively investigated or addressed. He even warned Bissessar that if nothing was done to deal with the corruption problem then all the members of the partnership would be “tainted.”
When the thorny issue of race was raised by members of the audience, Abdullah said that what was clear from the get-go that the East-Indian dominated United National Congress headed by Bissessar was the major partner in the coalition that won the election and the specter of race wasn’t a major factor at the outset. But “it turned out to be ethnic” with the goal of the UNC to win the next election.
“The goal was cementing the UNC position, ignoring competence,” he complained.
The OWTU General Secretary saw the need the need for a dialogue on race so that all sections of society could be heard. Such a national discussion was required because ethnic tensions were on the rise.
“We need a dialogue but it can’t be done by the existing parties because they are a part of the problem,” he declared.
On the hotly debated Section 34, whose early promulgation triggered widespread disquiet in the country because of its negative impact on the administration of justice, Abdullah said that it was a flawed section of a bill approved by parliament and the opposition to it coming from people of all walks of life must be respected.
Looking to the future, Abdullah said that the country needed a multi-billion dollars development fund that wouldn’t be integrated into government revolving resources and much of it should be spent on a range of economic and social priorities including roads and agriculture.