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Kamla washes her hands of the recession

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Two years into her term as prime minister, I interviewed Kamla Persad-Bissessar (February 2012). She was sharp, with an undeniable charisma and unending confidence. Her legal training gave her added authority. She had all the answers. Who was she? A PR machine. Perhaps with all the costume changes, she forgot she was the prime minister of a plural society. That a dignified suit would do, she did defend her love for dressing up.

“‘If I look dowdy people will say Kamla mashed up, gone through. If you look at old pictures of me, I have always dressed well. Not as a thing apart but as an extension of who I am, 100 per cent Trini woman. I like dash and flair. It’s me. My heritage of five continents shows in my hats and suits, to saris, African or Chinese wear. I don’t have a stylist, my sister buys my clothes. When I wake up in the morning, like every working woman, if I feel to wear red, blue or black I do just that. I embody multiculturalism. What’s wrong with that?’”

What was wrong with that was this is all she was. PR. There was no substance beneath. In that report I described her as “an A-type overachiever, one eye on a blinking BlackBerry (she reads all our papers online), is academic, literary even, with a photographic memory...who can dissect people with surgical precision. She’s gutsy, rather than emotional, and maintains a steely cool under the harshest of criticisms.”

I was wrong about her being able to dissect people. She’s still gutsy but not unemotional. She hasn’t been able to maintain her cool.

I checked Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s current Facebook page. Instead of her signature yellow matched with a garish red lipstick, a fixed patronising half smile and hair styled so heavily that an industrial fan would leave it intact, was photo after photo of an older woman, in jeans and a simple faded blue and white shirt.

I saw it many times in the diplomatic centre, when she was prime minister, the photo-taking, the way she would stand like a wax figure, people come to her and take photos with her, for posterity.

Now with arrogance seemingly drained out of her, here was a woman still pugnaciously in photo after photo with supporters (mostly random women) clutching on to their hands on her lap like life support. Her smile was that of a shell-shocked woman. Her lips grey. The hair longer, limp, careless. She looked more likeable albeit broken. 

In the introduction to an interview with her in 2012, I pointed out that she had been satirised as a ‘sari-wearing, Louis Vuitton fashionista “mama” who manages the men in her Cabinet as if they were a group of recalcitrant children.’ One flash of her eyes sent them scurrying, handing out hampers or standing deferentially.

In that 2012 interview she had the airy arrogant confidence you find in people with absolute power. She said, “You have a five-party partnership within one party, so naturally there are differences of opinion. We thrash things out and build consensus. There may be cracks or fissures but there are no precipices, canyons, no great divisions. Our ministers pull together on core issues. Sorry, but I don’t see us mashing up.”

Sorry. They lined up one after another and stabbed you in the back.

I asked her about the economy in that 2012 interview. She claimed her government achieved stability.

“Don’t knock it. Stability is a miracle, especially for a tiny nation like ours when continents are bending under global pressure. When we came in the treasury was almost empty. Now we are stable. That’s huge. We have a long list of achievements. We are very good at not communicating what we have done. We are too busy working to keep this ship afloat.”

Not entirely true was it? The Government has declared we are in recession, urging us all to tighten our belt. A recession is defined to be a period of two quarters of negative GDP growth. So it clearly began under the Kamla Persad-Bissessar tenure. Even as the price of oil plunged to US$90 to US$45 a barrel, as columnist Raffique Shah put it, “the PP Government increased spending, scraped the bottom of the NGC barrel for every available dollar, sold off some of the family jewels (FCB and PPG-NGL shares), extracted everything it could from the Central Bank, and, on top of that, borrowed beyond the $70 billion debt ceiling it established in 2011.”

You would have thought the defeated, pummelled opposition leader would finally speak in the best interests of our country. But no—her arrogance is in abeyance waiting to emerge.

Consider her statement on the recession: “The Government would want you to believe that the People’s Partnership (PP) administration is to be blamed for the recession which Trinidad and Tobago is now in. That is not so. During the PP tenure we faced the same problem of falling oil and gas prices and did not mismanage the economy in the way the People’s National Movement (PNM) is now doing. Job loss is occurring because of flawed PNM policies, the trend did not begin under the PP. We had nothing to worry about once there was prudent fiscal management of the economy.”

Her statement included a grim forecast for our dollar for devaluation, and annunciating the foreign exchange problem.

She’s basically washed her hands of the problem of the recession which began under her and dumped it on the PNM Government. As leader, she was the absolute leader. In Opposition, ineffective. I'm no economist, but I don’t agree with the heavy government borrowing either. But without a strong opposition leader who puts country first, I’m afraid for the checks and balances vital for a democracy in recession.


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