Diego Martin West MP Dr Keith Rowley, the PNM Government, and the National Academy for the Performing Arts in 2010; or equally it is also 2001 with the then-Couva South MP Ramesh Maharaj, the former UNC government, and the Piarco Airport scandal.
Some say that the more things change is the more they stay the same.
The Basdeo Panday government elected in 2000 collapsed when three of its MPs on the backbench led by Maharaj voted against a simple, nondescript bill in the elected House whose name no one even remembers – something about weights and measures – while now in 2010 the PNM Government is on the line in the May 24 general election after Prime Minister Patrick Manning dissolved the House the day before a no-confidence motion on his handling of the Udecott affair.
There are certainly clear parallels between the collapse of both governments, but there are also important differences.
PNM GOVT FALLS
Reporters in the Lower House were stunned on Wednesday April 23, 2008, to see Diego Martin West MP Dr Keith Rowley no longer in his usual place on the Government front-bench, but sitting with the few back-benchers who spill over onto a portion of the second row on the Opposition side. He told reporters he was fired by Prime Minister Patrick Manning over his, Rowley’s, concern as to how Udecott was conducting its business, including the inclusion of a 60-room hotel within the National Academy for the Performing Arts (NAPA) that was then under construction. Reacting to his firing, Rowley had said, “I was surprised that such a development could be taking place without appropriate Cabinet oversight. I raised, with the Prime Minister, Udecott activities when billions of dollars are being spent on projects. The way things are going, it is time for the PNM to take cognizance of the way the country is being governed.”
The next day Prime Minister Manning claimed to have fired Rowley for alleged ‘wajang” (unruly) behaviour in a Cabinet committee meeting on Udecott.
At a post-Cabinet news briefing, Manning denied that Rowley’s firing was because Manning as PNM leader felt threatened by Rowley.
Referring to Rowley’s 1996 challenge of Manning to be PNM leader when the PNM had lost office in the 1995 general election to a UNC/NAR government of National Unity, Manning boasted of beating Rowley in the PNM elections. “The last time that happened the results were very clear. Do I look like an insecure man?” asked Manning.
Rowley denied Manning’s claim, saying,“I am not a wajang. I am not a hooligan...I didn’t shout, I didn’t use foul language, I didn’t accost anybody, I didn’t throw my shoe, I didn’t climb on the table, I didn’t bang the table.”
After Rowley’s firing, pressure mounted for an investigation of State-run Udecott which Rowley had accused of poor accountability even as it oversaw the expenditure of billions of dollars on the construction of various mega projects.
Manning at first proposed a parliamentary Joint Select Committee (JSC), but this was rejected by the Opposition who said a Commission of Inquiry would have more teeth. Manning relented, but proposed controversial former Integrity Commission chairman, Gordon Deane, to head any such an inquiry. This nominee was soundly rejected by the Opposition.
The eventual commission of inquiry was headed by Prof John Uff who is qualified, unusually, as both a barrister-at-law and an engineer. Despite two legal actions by Udecott to try to derail the inquiry, Uff succeeded in completing the hearings and submitting his report.
As the Lower House debated a Bill to validate the Uff Commission on October 22, 2009, Manning attacked Rowley and defended Hart.
Manning said Rowley was a “raging bull” who was in a tag team relationship with Opposition MP for Tabaquite, Ramesh Maharaj, whom he in turn likened to a mafia-boss, “il capo di tutti capi”.
Rowley kept up his concern over squandermania, such as in the 2010 Budget debate on September 14 saying he was “as mad as hell” over the continued award of dubious public contracts, one year after he had spoken out against corruption only to be vilified by Manning. Rowley was angry that the cost of a bundle of Petrotrin projects had risen from $3.4 billion to $9.3 billion.
Also during the Uff inquiry, Rowley was attacked over supposed irregularities at the Cleaver Heights project of public housing, but this was inconclusive.
Even as the inquiry was underway and unearthing new concerns, Manning repeatedly kept up a show of support for Udecott head, Calder Hart.
At one time, Carl Khan, the ex-husband of Hart’s wife, Sherrine Hart, told the Commission that Sherrine’s brother and brother-in-law were once directors of CH/Sunway, the firm awarded a $368 million contract by Udecott. Hart denied this claim.
Manning claimed, “They are not interested in truth they prefer to rely on the evidence of a jilted lover. That’s what it is. The divorce proceedings were so acrimonious that they remain sealed to this day.”
However, days before the Uff Report was laid in Parliament, two attorneys in the COP — Timothy Hamel-Smith and Vernon De Lima — published Malaysian birth certificates and marriage certificates proving the link between Mrs Hart and the two CH-Sunway directors.
Meanwhile Hart resigned as Udecott head and suddenly left Trinidad, in a public relations nightmare for the Government, but subsequently came back briefly to Trinidad to be interviewed by police.
Leader of the Opposition Kamla Persad-Bissessar brought a no-confidence motion against Manning for his handling of the Udecott affair. Although Manning held a comfortable parliamentary majority of 26 to 15 seats, nonetheless he chose to dissolve Parliament the very day before the motion and so deny debate on Udecott that would have been held with the protection of parliamentary privilege.
Manning, days later, then kept his promise to the earlier PNM Special Convention at Chaguaramas, by announcing elections for May 24.
While the Government has argued that they have called elections to seek a fresh mandate in light of difficulties governing amid much criticism, the Opposition is saying there’s no two ways about it, the Government has collapsed.
UNC GOVT COLLAPSES
On June 4, 2001, the then Couva South MP and attorney general, Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj won elections in the then ruling UNC to be the party’s deputy leader, beating Siparia MP Kamla Persad-Bissessar and Carlos John.
However, disaffection arose just days later when Prime Minister Basdeo Panday stoutly rejected the idea of Maharaj ever being acting Prime Minister, claiming his role as AG debars that.
By September, Panday was being openly opposed by the UNC trio of Maharaj, Information Technology Minister Ralph Maraj and Food Production Minister Trevor Sudama, all opposed to Panday’s apparent failure to deal with reports of corruption. The then Opposition Leader Patrick Manning on September 19, 2001, dropped a bombshell in Parliament when he asked, “Who owns a 1.4 million pound sterling luxury apartment at 12A Campden Hill Court, Campden Hill Road, South Kensington, London?”
Photos surfaced of the house, from a source later named by Manning, as Maharaj.
On September 21 2001, Rowley revealed a $50,000 cheque made out by the UNC’s North West office to Basdeo Panday.
Days later, in his 2001 Budget speech, Maharaj declared war on corruption, saying, “I cannot close my eyes to the fact that there are certain public officials who have suddenly become rich.”
The biggest UNC scandal of many involving public projects was that of the $1.6 billion project to expand Piarco Airport. A Commission of Inquiry was held but the report was never published. While the culpable parties have already been jailed in the United States, the trials in Trinidad are still underway. Interestingly, some persons from the former UNC regime with question marks over their heads, are now surfacing prominently on the campaign trail for the May 24 elections.
Vowing the corrupt would be brought to justice, Maharaj resigned as AG on September 29, 2001. Talks were held about the trio of Maraj, Maharaj and Sudama joining the PNM in a coalition government, but instead they went on to form Team Unity. With the defection of the trio, the UNC Government collapsed, after which the general election of December 10, 2001, was won by the PNM.
This country’s two most recent governments have been brought down under the weight of corruption, and the defection of those MPs disgruntled over their leaders’ apparent unwillingness to curb it.
A cynic might also say Panday and Manning both fell also largely due to the personal ambitions of the men who sought to replace each of them — Rowley and Maharaj.
However, what is clear is that for all the talk of ethno-political polarisation, this country’s leaders generally behave in the same way whatever the colour of the party jersey they are wearing.
The UNC had its Piarco Airport scandal, while the PNM has its Udecott scandal.
There are other similarities between the two parties and their leaders. Manning and Panday both had rows with the media, both had dubious or unknown sources of party finances, and both are seen as maximum leaders.
It is said that talk is cheap. Perhaps the best guide to predicting the future behaviour of a person or for that matter a party, is to look at their past.
This election there is talk of change, so voters will have to ask themselves based on the sum total of what is known of the relevant personalities, their parties and its supporter base, is this change likely to be real or just a pipe dream?
Is it change or just exchange?
On May 24, you decide!