Saturday 20th September, 2008

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  • PNM heads for $50b budget.
  • UNC ‘reviewing’ role of UNC chief whip Maharaj.

Any plans by Finance Minister Karen Nunez-Tesheira to use yesterday’s Finance Bill debate in the Lower House as a “trial run” for her spotlight moment in Monday’s budget presentation were delayed.

Nunez-Tesheira had to relax until MPs dealt with bail bill amendments.

And even when she did pilot her Finance bill—a six-minute job—she was less in pit bull attack mode than she had been last Friday during the no-confidence debate concerning Prime Minister Patrick Manning.

Then—complete with lipstick—Tesheira had alternated between lavishly praising Manning and negatively pronouncing on the Opposition.

Americans have 45 more days to decide whether US Republican vice presidential contender Sarah Palin (who popularised the pit-bull-with- lipstick analogy on women) is Veep material.

Or whether she may be viewed as a poor man’s Hillary Clinton.

The significance of female input in the US election has been borne out by the interest generated in the Clinton factor and the Republican’s acknowledgement of that in offering Palin.

Locally, yesterday in Parliament, Nunez-Tesheira, in scholarly grey, didn’t look quite like a woman about to create history.

Monday’s 2009 budget presentation will pit Nunez-Tesheira, the first female to deliver T&T’s budget, against UNC deputy leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar—both lawyers and both in their 50s.

Law degree apart, Nunez-Te-sheira holds legal education certification and an executive MBA.

Persad-Bissessar also holds an MBA, law degrees, BA and an education diploma. This, plus political experience—which Nunez- Tesheira lacks—including delivery of the Opposition’s budget replies in 2006 and 2007.

There was no sign of the impending competition during yesterday’s sitting save for Persad- Bissessar’s move when she sat (for ten minutes) in the empty seat of her absent leader, to speak to MP Hamza Rafeeq.

The latter acted for absent chief whip Ramesh Maharaj.

Nunez-Tesheira chose that period to move a seat closer to her boss to speak to him.

Tesheira may be more pleasing on the eyes than her predecessors including Dr Eric Williams, George Chambers, Selby Wilson, ANR Robinson, Brian Kuei Tung and Patrick Manning.

However, the question whether as a woman Nunez-Tesheira might formulate a budget with more focus on basic concerns was answered by government sources yesterday who confirmed priority spending will go towards agriculture and infrastructure as well as education, health and national security—rather than with initiating new mega projects.

They also said the budget will surpass the 2007-2008 budget of $42 billion.

“The 2009 package will be almost $50 billion, maybe even a little more and its theme will focus on continuity,” they added.

Major funding—described by Government as “Quite a lot!”—goes to the Office of the Prime Minister for preparations for April’s Summit of the Americas and November’s Commonwealth leaders conference.

Increases in infrastructure will likely be geared towards those events also, as have been mega projects currently underway.

Innovations for agriculture, sources said, include flood-time crop insurance, increased lending facilities and increasing the sector by 7,000 new farmers and the Chaguaramas mega-farm—the only one of those promised which has come on stream so far. Cuban farmers for that facility arrived last month.

Energy officials said the gas subsidies will remain although Government had hinted at “reviewing” this, and Tobago—heading to THA elections in January— will get its requested $2.9 billion.

Rowley—fighting another day

Whether fired Minister Keith Rowley will speak in the budget debate—or stay out as he did with last week’s no-confidence motion—remains to be seen.

That UNC’s Ramesh L Maharaj, who moved that motion based his arguments against Manning on allegations which Rowley has made against Udecott officials, put Rowley as much centre stage as the Opposition in that debate.

A fact acknowledged by PNM’s Colm Imbert who’d remarked that Maharaj was drinking others’ “bush tea.”

Rowley’s non-participation in debate—while not supporting the allegations Maharaj said he had made—left him uncompromised.

Rowley said yesterday, “I speak as a PNM voice. We’re clear on who PNMites were mobilised to support in Woodford Square last Friday. My concern is whether they were aware of what they were supporting. Until that’s clear the full import of what occurred will not be fully understood.

“The conduct of an office holder was called into account. That person sought to mobilise PNM in defence of the allegations against him. But in the end, issues concerning public business have not been addressed. They remain to be addressed. That should be of concern to any right-thinking PNMite.”

Ramesh gone

Rowley’s view appeared to echo Maharaj’s summary of that debate—that Manning hadn’t answered the allegations.

But while Rowley has kept his position pristine—probably to have his say in the upcoming Udecott enquiry—the failure of Maharaj’s motion has placed him on enough of a backfoot in UNC to mitigate against his leading other UNC thrusts.

Maharaj, in London for a family emergency, was conspicuously absent from yesterday’s House after the failed debate debacle.

At Wednesday’s UNC caucus, divided views prevailed on whether Persad-Bissessar, Maharaj or MP Vassant Bharath should deliver UNC’s budget reply, those present confirmed.

Some felt a deputy should do the job in the leader’s absence.

Deputy Wade Mark was among Persad-Bissessar’s supporters for the task.

Deputy Jack Warner said he was supporting Bharath in the first instance then Maharaj.

This left Persad-Bissessar, who garnered majority support in the caucus.

Maharaj said he felt UNC leader Basdeo Panday should have decided instead of having a caucus vote. He said he would withdraw if there was a vote, they said.

Sources added that MP Roodal Moonilal said Bharath was suited for the task since, like Tesheira, he was new, but also has the comprehensive financial background Tesheira lacks.

However, Bharath also withdrew saying he didn’t want to cause divisions.

Maharaj was questioned on his failed Manning motion including alleged agreements with PNMites without consulting MPs.

Sources said Maharaj replied, telling some they could have the chief whip’s job if they wanted it.

The caucus has agreed the chief whip’s role and functions be reviewed on October 15, they confirmed.

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