PRIME MINISTER Dr Keith Rowley has announced a date for the next local government election but in the process missed an opportunity to account for the progress, or rather lack thereof, when it comes to local government reform. In fact, until such time as it is proven otherwise, we are of the view that local government matters have become low priority for the ruling administration.
As you would expect with the election bell having been rung, the Opposition wasted little time in commencing its campaign last Friday night. With the December 2 date now declared, UNC MPs sought to demonise the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC), claiming its latest amendments to local government borders potentially benefitted the PNM.
The EBC is an independent constitutional body, unable to defend itself from allegations within the political fray. For decades, EBC reports have been approved by the Parliament with a degree of deference that acknowledges the body’s sensitive role in overseeing elections. But this is the pattern now established by the UNC: when winning, the EBC is working fine, when losing, the EBC is tainted. But the parlous state of local government reform, we say, is something that lies squarely at the foot of the Government.
Having reportedly received the EBC’s latest report since April, the timing of last Friday’s EBC debate left a lot to be desired. It was first suggested the matter would be debated on Budget Day, in a complete break of Parliament tradition which prioritises the annual spending package. Then, that plan mysteriously evaporated, only for the debate to take place last Friday.
It’s the Government’s prerogative to exercise its powers as it will. The Dr Rowley administration may well have foreseen and been weary of mischievous attempts to politicise the EBC debate and opted for a post-budget period of low attention to hold it. But in the process it undermined the democratic process and the sense of importance of local government itself.
Worse, however, is the failure to give an account of progress made in relation to the local government reform pledges in the PNM’s 2015 manifesto. Promises were made to remove red tape, abolish the “middle man” of the local government ministry, restructure revenue collection, amend laws to give greater autonomy, change procurement practices in corporations, empower civil society to have input, and put greater powers in the hands of municipal officials
By way of contrast, local government reform was mentioned once in passing during budget 2020.
Springing the local government date at the period devoted to the Opposition to reply to the budget served to make local government seem like little more than an expedient political toy. We hope this is not the case and that the election campaign will, from now on and on both sides, reflect the vital importance of local government.