With elections just months away, local government is shaping up as the latest battlefront for the country’s two main political parties.
The first salvo was fired by Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar on Tuesday, when she got all but one of the UNC’s Local Government representatives to boycott a meeting hosted by the Ministry of Rural Development and Local Government.
The session was intended to deal with service delivery and operationalising of local government reform but Mrs Persad-Bissessar’s condemnation of the meeting as a “total hypocritical public relations gimmick” dampened any prospects for bipartisanship.
To his credit, Samuel Sankar, the UNC councillor for Warrenville/Kelly Village, showed up for the meeting because he was unaware of his party’s boycott, but stayed on to raise concerns on behalf of the 12,000 burgesses he represents.
At a news conference later in the day, Local Government Minister Faris Al-Rawi did not hide his disappointment at the almost total UNC no-show and did not miss the opportunity to fire back at the Opposition for their “adversarial and entirely unfathomable posture.”
That, unfortunately, is how representational politics is conducted in this country, plenty of trading of barbs and little in the way of meaningful dialogue.
If this is an indicator of how the transition into the long overdue modernised and reformed local government system will be conducted, there will be bigger disappointments for burgesses than the UNC leader would have felt at seeing representatives from her party at Tuesday’s meeting.
However, the opportunity to establish the quality of local government that contributes to T&T’s development could easily be squandered if both sides continue along the current trajectory. This is not the way to go, not when burgesses have been waiting for local government reform for the better part of two decades.
Do not forget that it was back in 2002 that this upgrade of the system was added to the agenda of the Patrick Manning administration. To say that progress was painfully slow would be an understatement.
At one point, during unsuccessful efforts to advance the process, elections were postponed, and the terms of local government bodies were extended. Still, reform was an elusive goal for two PNM administrations—the tenure of the late Mr Manning and the party’s first term in office under the leadership of Dr Keith Rowley.
As tempting as it might be to try to score political points, that would be at the expense of a system that directly touches the lives of citizens across Trinidad. At this critical stage, with the necessary legislation in place, the priority should be the implementation of the reforms, so that burgesses can have the benefits of a local government system that delivers goods and services in an efficient, timely and cost-effective manner.
It is more important to ensure that by the time the elections come around—anytime between December and March—local government is poised to function in a manner that provides accountability and efficiency, with more stable sources of funding. That would be advantageous for whichever political party controls the most regional corporations after those elections.
There are many reasons why, on this important matter, all sides should do their part in the implementation of the reforms and spare T&T the useless political sabre rattling.