Thursday, August 30, 2012
Leadership is, or ought to be, amongst other things, about doing the right thing. Political leadership is, or ought to be, amongst other things, about taking a country forward. Any action by a political leadership that produces divisiveness ought to be deprecated, especially on occasions when it is right and meet that a sense of national pride and unity should be promoted.
That is why I have been looking on with dismay over certain events this week that have me in despair on this eve of our nations fiftieth anniversary. To my mind they were as unnecessary as they were ... well, just plain stupid! Further, instead of the nation coming together this week with a certain pride at reaching this milestone, the country is even more divided than it was, say, a month ago!
Let's look at issue number one: the flag! Opponents of the Government took great umbrage over a billboard put up along the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway by certain private citizens who are supporters of the Government. The source of their angst was the fact that the billboard had the national flag on it; superimposed on the top right hand corner of the flag/billboard was a picture of Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar. On the bottom left hand corner was a picture of the UNC Party Chairman and National security Minister Jack Warner. According to these people this was evidence that (a) the Government was using public funds to promote a personality cult (or cults), and (b) that this was tantamount to a debasing of the national flag wherein the faces of politicians on the national flag cheapens it and is wrong.
To which my reaction was 'huh'? Maybe I have been too heavily influenced by what goes on in the United States, and I would be the first to confess that just because the Americans do something doesn't mean that we should also do it. But in that great country (and, yes, whether you like them or not, it is a great country) they constantly wrap themselves in their flag. Why, just this week I saw a picture of an elephant (the symbol of the Republican Party) superimposed on the American flag. And guess what? NOBODY has said boo!! (You will remember that the Republican Convention is taking place this week in Tampa.) And why didn't any body say anything about this: putting a political symbol on a picture of the flag? (I mean, surely this is worse!!) Answer: Because the Americans take pride in thier republic and are HAPPY whenever anybody or any organisation wants to proclaim his or its love of their country. Put another way, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a politician wrappimg himself or herself in the country's flag. Indeed, the PNM did it in an advertisement in the Guardian this week (much to their embarrassment) and I do recall other advertisements in the past when the Prime Minister Manning also wrapped himself in the flag. So what?
But this is really no big thing! Unless, of course, you are an opponent of the present regime in which case you will grab at any and everything to try and make them look bad. Even when it means putting a damper on the country's birthday celebrations!
Which leads me to the next point: Dr. Rowley and the PNM say that they are not going to take part in the country's official celebrations. Why? Basically, because the Government has (in their opinion) not given Dr. Eric Williams a proper place or recognition, nor has he been propery honoured in the celebrations. Also, the Government did not listen to their ideas for how the event ought to have been celebrated!
To which I say: 'What?!' What kind of 'spoiled child' behaviour is this? Let us assume (though certainly not accept) for the sake of argument that the PNM is on solid ground with their complaints. Does this mean that because they might have legitimate complaints that they should not take part in the national celebrations? In other words, because the present regime refused to do things their way that they will not attend the "party"? This is not a private affair. This is the birthday of the nation and even if the Government was wrong in anything that it did with regard to teh celebrations (which I don't necessarily agree with at all) then responsible political leadership requires ... no! Demands... that the politicians on all sides should come together for the country's birthday. It is a little like two siblings quarreling over their parents' anniversary and one saying that he won't go because he feels that the other has not agreed with the type of cake to be served. Who gets hurt by the stupid quarrel? The parents!
The attitude of the PNM and the opponents of the Government in this matter is mean spirited, selfish, small-minded, stupid and (worst of all) designed to create further divisions in an already fractured and divided society. It is just plain wrong!
Posted by Robin Montano at 8:55 AM
Monday, August 27, 2012
Birthdays are essentially markers of time ... 'I have now been on the planet for X years' ... and are always a great time for reflection ... even for nations. And a fiftieth birthday is a significant marker, and one which should rightly be celebrated. There are several ways of looking at this particular birthday ... what have I accomplished in my 50 years on the planet? Where am I right now in this particular phase of my life? Where do I want to be? Have I achieved the goals and ambitions that I wanted to when I was younger? I could go on, but you get the point.
Except for the names and a few other obvious changes, the same questions can apply to the fiftieth birthday of a nation. Where were we fifty years ago in terms of our development? Where are we now? Have we fulfilled our potential? What mistakes did we make along the way? Have we recognised our mistakes? Are we moving to correct them? Are we on the right path for the future? If not, why not? If so, are we doing the best that we can in all of the circumstances, or could we be doing better?
I am certain that many of my readers will be able to add more questions requiring answers and introspection that are (or may be) even more pertinent than those listed above. My list is not intended to be all encompassing, but merely a guide as to the type of questions that we should all be asking ourselves as we approach the 31st August. I am going to try and answer ... or at least give my 'take' on some of them, but, again, do not offer these views either as gospel nor as necessarily correct. They are simply my own personal views and are proffered as such. In so doing, you may notice that I have tried very hard not to be either political or overtly critical of either past or present regimes. The reason for this is because I believe that right now what is needed more than anything else is cool, calm and clear reasoning ... which I am well aware, has never defeated blinding emotions!
Starting with where we have come from: the truth is that we have come a long way. Fifty years ago there was no sharing of the national pie or cake the way that there is today. More citizens are better off today than they were fifty years ago. But, (and it is a big "but") there is today a greater level of dissatisfaction with the quality of life than there was fifty years ago. Perhaps it is because people are generally better educated than they were fifty years ago? Or maybe it is because the promises of politicians over the years have not been kept? Or maybe it is because there is a feeling that we could have done a lot better? Or maybe it is all of these things and more? But it is clear that if you go throughout Trinidad & Tobago today almost everyone you meet will complain about the quality of life and how he/she feels that things are not as good as they could or should be.
So, have we recognised our past mistakes? Because, if we haven't, then we certainly can't fix them! You could argue that we have and that is why over the years we have elected and removed various governments because they had failed us. On the other hand, you could argue that we haven't because the fact is that we have been unable to change the mindset of our politicians who, once they get into office, behave exactly as their predecessors did. My answer to that criticism would be that this is more a fault of our Constitution and that as a people we have failed to have any intelligent discussion on constitutional reform. In fact, I will go so far as to say that unless and until we discuss constitutional reform in a meaningful way that every single complaint that we have today and had yesterday, we will have tomorrow regardless of who is in power.
Could we do better? Oh yes! Definitely! But you must remember that there are in this little twin island republic many entrenched 'status quos' , and the problem becomes more acute when you recognise that the slightest suggestion for change always means death to some 'status quo'.
To quote Shakespeare, "the fault dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves"!
So, I say happy birthday T&T. May we all go forward towards that "shining city on the hill" that we all so aspire to achieve. In the words of the calypsonian, "we can make it if we try".
Posted by Robin Montano at 10:00 AM
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Like just about every Trinbagonian on the planet I was thrilled when young (he is only 19) Keshorn Walcott won a gold medal in the Olympics. I was also pleased when a mistake by the Canadian relay team gave us the bronze medal in the men's 4X100 relay race. (Hey! Rules are rules and a win within the rules is still a win! Sorry, Canada. I do know how you feel, but if the shoe was on the other foot you would also be shrugging your shoulders and saying the same thing to us.)
I also have no problem at all with the rewards and accolades being heaped upon the young man. I think that his achievement was stupendous and as far as I am concerned he deserves all that a grateful nation has heaped upon him and more.
But (as I argued more than ten years ago) we really should establish a firm national policy as to how we are going to reward our sporting heroes in the future. For example, Keshorn won a gold medal. One! But what are we going to do if tomorrow his cousin wins two gold medals? Three? What if his girlfriend wins four silvers? What about if somebody wins two bronze medals and a silver? Get the point? We need to have a settled policy that applies to everybody. Not to do so invites chaos.
In the United States gold medal athletes are given US$25,000 per medal. Silver medalists get $15,000 and those who bring home a bronze get $10,000. In Canada their gold medalists get Can$20,000 per medal. Then the other medal winners are compensated as their American counterparts. In addition, in both countries the coaches of the winning athletes are also given financial rewards (which are not as great as the athletes but still nice). Incidentally, both of these countries impose a tax on these monetary prizes. America even taxes the value of the medals ... but I think that it is the only country in the world to do so.
Now, I am not saying that we should limit ourselves to the Canadian or American standards. Neither am I saying that we should exceed them.
My point here is a simple one: whether you agree or not with the "goodies" that the Government has showered on our Olympian gold medalist, you would have to be absolutely churlish not to agree that Mr. Walcott does deserve something from a grateful nation. The outburst of national pride that he egendered by his superlative feat is ... well, priceless! But we must at all times keep our feet planted firmly on the ground and we must be fair to those who will follow after him. The time has come for us to have a national policy on rewarding ALL of our sporting heroes ... from the Olympics to cricket and football and everything in between ... fairly. And right now, with Mr. Walcott's tremendous achievement freshly before us, would be a great time to start such a discussion and put such a policy in place.
Posted by Robin Montano at 12:05 PM
Friday, August 10, 2012
Let me begin by saying that for me personally, I am all in favour of the fuel subsidy. I understand clearly the economic arguments for getting rid of it (or at least reducing it) and, quite frankly, cannot refute them. My only answer is that you cannot run a country like a business and that getting rid of the fuel subsidy will cause a great deal of pain, especially on those least able to afford it. But this post is not to argue for a retention of the fuel subsidy. That argument is for another time and/or place. I have heard via the usual Trini grapevine (which is often as accurate as it is just plain wrong) that new Finance Minister Howai intends to reduce (if not abolish) the fuel subsidy in the upcoming budget in September or October. In other words, the argument to abolish or reduce the fuel subsidy has already taken place and the abolitionists have won.
So, assuming (though obviously not accepting) that my information is correct, I have some suggestions for the very competent Finance Minister as to how he might lessen or alleviate the "damage" to the pockets of the average citizen if the subsidy is reduced or eliminated.
Perhaps we might start with the abolition of the Motor Vehicle Tax (MVT). You see, the MVT is designed to make cars, especially larger gas guzzling cars, so expensive that citizens will think twice before buying them. But if the subsidy is going to be reduced the "raison d'etre" to tax a large engine goes by the board. After all, surely, the reason that we taxed larger engines was to prevent (or make it harder for) people to abuse the subsidy on fuel. So instead of it costing, say $100 to fill up that Range Rover, by abolishing the subsidy it will now cost, say, $1,000. In other words, it is in the tax man's interests that people buy as much gas as pthey can possibly afford. And right there what the Finance Minister has lost on the swing of abolishing the MVT he will more than make up for on the abolition/reduction of the fuel subsidy.
Also, we would then have an incentive to import more fuel efficient cars. Right now the tax system works against this. I understand, for example, that a Suzuki 2 litre Vitara is less fuel efficient than its big sister that has the bigger 2.4 litre engine. But the present tax structure encourages the import of the vehicle that burns MORE gas!! Life in the tropics?! Bigger engines today do not necessarily translate into less fuel efficient engines.
Again, we import a lot of foreign used vehicles from Japan and other places. These vehicles are usually about 5 to 6 years old and are not as fuel efficient as later models. But in good old T&T this doesn't matter because gas is so cheap. But because they are so old the MVT is very low making them comparitively inexpensive. But abolition of the MVT will reduce (if not eliminate) the need for such inefficient cars.
I could go on, but hopefully you have got the point. Abolish or reduce the fuel subsidy, then do the same with the MVT.
And because the abolition/reduction of the fuel subsidy will cause hardship the Minister should also pay attention to helping bona fide taxi drivers in converting their vehicles to compressed natural gas (CNG). Again, I am not certain how much the conversion will cost, but let's say that it will be about $10,000, then let the Government say that it will pay for the cost of converting a maxi or a car to CNG for all registered taxis (n.b., NOT the PH taxis) up to, say, $10,000. The cost of operating a CNG fueled taxi is peanuts compared to the cost of operating a gasoline or even diesel fueled vehicle, even at today's subsidised costs.
Also, the Minister ought to look at the terrible inefficiency that takes place on the roads. Right now a lot of cars get almost zero miles to the gallon because every single day they are spent in time wasting traffic jams. Trinis tend not to worry about the very real cost of sitting in a traffic jam for a long time because fuel is so cheap. But if the fuel subsidy is removed/reduced all of a sudden people will feel the cost of sitting in a traffic jam with the engine idling, gas burning needlessly and going nowhere fast. For one thing, a lot of people will wake up to the very bad driving habits that take place on the roads now where cars stop in the middle of the road to take on or disgorge a passenger to the detriment of all those behind.
You might say that the whole point of this post is that if we are to get rid of the subsidy then let's do so in an intelligent manner that at least will hand back to the citizenry something that they will have lost. Tax, tax, tax is never an answer.
Posted by Robin Montano at 11:26 AM