The king is dead! Away with the king!

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The king is dead! Away with the king!

Bruce Golding

Sunday, September 20, 2020

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The late Patrick Manning with whom I developed a close friendship served as leader of the People's National Movement (PNM) for 23 years and prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago for 13 of those years. In those 23 years he led the PNM into seven elections, winning three and losing three with one ending in a tie. In his 13 years as prime minister, the country's economy grew by 72 per cent — an average annual rate of just under 5 per cent. Per capita income increased 250 per cent.

Manning built on the foundations laid by his PNM predecessor, George Chambers, who had undertaken major economic reforms to reduce the economy's almost total reliance on the energy sector that made it vulnerable to the volatility of the global oil market. Booming oil prices in the 1970s had masked severe structural weaknesses in the economy and the oil price crash in the early 1980s dealt a devastating blow to Trinidad and Tobago. So painful were those reforms that in the 1986 election the PNM's 30-year hold on power came to an end and it was able to win only 3 of the 36 seats in Parliament, one of which was that of Manning himself.

Manning assumed leadership of the party in that year and after only one term led the party back to victory. Under his watch, Trinidad and Tobago converted its electricity source from oil to LNG which, together with other significant reforms, enabled it to develop its manufacturing prowess, flooding the Caricom market and boosting its exports to several parts of the world. The manufacturing sector grew from 7 per cent of GDP to 18 per cent. At the same time, Trinidad and Tobago became the world's largest exporter of ammonia, second largest exporter of methanol and the eighth largest exporter of LNG.

Manning saw to significant improvement in education and skills training including the provision of free tuition up to university level. He introduced a range of programmes to expand the social safety net and access to health care and affordable housing. The poverty level was reduced by almost a half.

His tenure was not without its disappointments. The escalation in crime including the prevalence of ransom-driven kidnappings haunted his time in office. His Administration was bedevilled by allegations of corruption about which he should have been more decisive and proactive. It is arguable that greater attention should have been paid to improving the physical infrastructure which creaked as the economy grew. But even his harshest critics are forced to concede that he made an outstanding contribution to the growth and development of Trinidad and Tobago.

The PNM lost the 2010 election, winning only 12 of 41 seats. Manning could not escape his fair share of the blame. Deep divisions had emerged within the party which he should have made greater effort to resolve, especially the rift between himself and the current prime minister, Keith Rowley, who succeeded him. The party had become disconnected from the people; its organisational machinery had crumbled and its campaign was lacklustre and ineffective.

After such a crushing defeat, Manning did not seek to hang on to the position of party leader. He took full responsibility for the loss and within three days submitted his resignation. Yet, as he was leaving the PNM headquarters after tendering his letter of resignation, he was confronted with hostility, booed and literally chased off the premises by his own PNM supporters. It was a sad spectacle.

Politics is not a cradle for true friendship or genuine respect even when it is due. It is too toxic for that. But common decency, if not common sense, should not allow a leader who has given many years of service and is voluntarily stepping aside to be treated with scorn and contempt. It is not just about the dignity and respect to which he is entitled. That is one thing. More importantly, it is what it says about the organisation and the corrosive effect it can have on its culture.

Losing an election, no matter how badly, is not a cause for recrimination or a mob-like search for a ram in the thicket, machetes in hand. It is rather a time for sober reflection, careful and objective analysis and a commitment to the hard rebuilding work that must be done.

— Bruce Golding is a former prime minister of Jamaica


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