Witching and bitching: a PNM sideshow

Published in Trinidad Guardian
January 21, 2007

The gee-whiz showpiece achievement for the PNM’s election campaign will not be the rapid rail, the water taxis, the Waterfront and Government Campus high-rises, nor any aluminium plant.

By the ringing of the election bell some time after Carnival and cricket, all of the above will still be construction sites or computer-generated images, advertising where the ruling party wants to go rather than a triumphant “Been there, done that.”

The all-seeing radar, attack helicopters, fast patrol vessels, the blimp and the eyes-in-the-sky will represent “assets” deployed in the struggle against crime.

But neither the bulging package itself nor any single part of it can be held up as a match-winner in the contest against crime.

The clear-cut electoral selling point of this Manning administration, appearing yet to be only test-marketed, is the building and delivery of houses.

“My home is my sanctuary,” croons the copy of a full-page HDC advertisement, which foregrounds a smiling, well-fed, thirty-ish couple of suitably indeterminate racial origin: new home owners, living proof of PNM housing performance beating opposition ole talk any time.

Possession of place is tangible and indisputable. But given the assorted anxieties now besetting ordinary life in T&T, the advertisers use a tentative fine print for the credit line: “The Housing Development Corporation providing you with peace of mind.”

Not even a new government house can reliably bring peace of mind to the Mr and Ms Biswas of today, the descendants of VS Naipaul’s epic yearning for a house of one’s own.

But an HDC house is still a home. By the close of its term, this PNM administration should be able to point to tens of thousands of people now more securely and comfortably housed than they had been six years ago.

This success story, in the well-founded fear of the opposition parties, may well prove electorally decisive.

Should that happen, and if any fairness remains in the world, individual credit is owed to Housing Minister Keith Rowley. It is he who has led a literally scorched-earth campaign to fulfill the PNM 2002 campaign pledge of building 10,000 houses a year in answer to the 90,000 applications the HDC claims to have received.

At least for now, Dr Rowley and the HDC have backed off the monumentally ambitious, and equally contentious, plan to evacuate and rebuild east Port-of-Spain.

Elsewhere, people have been sniffing loudly at the Rowley-HDC footprints appearing on empty land in their neighbourhoods.

Residents near Aberdeen Park in Chaguanas have been worrying aloud whether their new neighbours will be people decanted from east Port-of-Spain.

In the new mood of “not in my backyard” people are dreadfully suspicious of newcomers being brought in to meet the undeclared objectives and effects of a social engineering implied by the large house-building plans.

Referring to protests against 149 homes being planted on the slopes of Fort George, Dr Rowley last week hit back at “snobbery” on racial, social, or geographic grounds.

He has been taking the blows publicly, while hardly enjoying the unmixed appreciation of his party.

The unfairness of it all has bestirred an ancient PNM retainer publicly to cry foul. Ferdie Ferreira is secure enough in his PNM credentials to challenge reigning tendencies. His letter in the daily papers has been calling attention to Dr Rowley as a possessor of rare “party political assets” now being imprudently disregarded.

Mr Ferreira’s letter was published around the same time a newspaper photo showed Prime Minister Patrick Manning scarce deigning to rise from his chair to shake the hand of his Housing Minister arriving for the Balisier House media party.

If Dr Rowley’s situation qualifies for the descriptor “embattled,” it is so far only the venerable Mr Ferreira who has publicly taken his side.

Just before Christmas, the minister had been as startled as Mr Ferreira had been scandalised to learn from the Sunday Guardian the Fraud Squad is investigating if his family’s Landate housing development may have benefited from the Scarborough hospital construction.

The Landate-Scarborough link had been probed by a commission of inquiry appointed by Mr Manning promptly after UNC allegations. The inquiry did not identify any smoking-gun evidence, but expressed tendentious disquiet about Dr Rowley’s role.

“This, however, appears not to have satisfied his detractors both inside and outside the party,” Mr Ferreira wrote, condemning the appearance of “an endless witch hunt.”

It is witching and bitching time inside the PNM, other reports say. On December 20 a “Newsday Reporter” story said, “There is definitely a question mark over the political future of (Dr Rowley) who may be a no-show in the next general elections.”

Expanding on roiling insiders’ intrigue, the story added that two names were being talked about as possible candidates for Diego Martin West, Dr Rowley’s seat. Last week, Attorney General John Jeremie denied personal interest in seeking the nomination.

Investigations and rumours of investigations, used so effectively against UNC figures, have now extended a damaging reach to someone as highly placed among the PNM’s top brass as Dr Rowley.

The UNC, who know a good thing when they see it, have pounced. Nariva MP Harry Partap has goaded Mr Manning to take as hard a line with Dr Rowley as he had done with Basdeo Panday and Chief Justice Sat Sharma:

“We want him to stop protecting miscreants in his Government,” said Mr Partap in a strategically targeted broadside.

A UNC hatchet man thus makes effective common cause with anti-Rowley combatants inside the PNM. A party hardly brimming with talent and ability is contemplating, to Ferdie Ferreira’s dismay, the casting aside of the proven “assets” and resources in Dr Rowley.

This close to elections, the political consequences of the Fraud Squad gumshoes’ tramping and poking around the Rowleys’ Landate estate represent somebody’s exercise in brinkmanship.

For now, the result is an increasingly engaging sideshow to the larger drama of a deadly power politics.

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