“We will indeed have plenty of things to say AND show

Interview: Nita Deerpalsing

by the time we come to election in some 4 years’ time!” 

“The power of our convictions will continue to drive us to implement policies which are in line with our ultimate convictions” 

“The government’s resolve to walk the democratisation talk is already there for everyone to see! Except those of bad faith!”

“The resolve of this government is to implement measures which in the context it is living in, will go the longest way to uplift people and put at their disposal the means for their empowerment. This is what the Labour Party has been doing since 1936 and this is what the Labour Party will continue to do, now as it celebrates its 75th year of existence and tomorrow and the day after tomorrow,” says Nita Deerpalsing, Director of Communication of the Labour Party.  

Narrow majority or not, principles remain principles, she says, and adds: “I can tell you it is not this PM who will have any fear or favour on account of a narrow majority or whatever else.”

Mauritius Times : It looks like an MMM-MSM “remake” would constitute a matter of deep concern for the Labour Party. For even though the Labour leader says he will not waste time in any palaver with respect to any such remake, we see the Alliance’s spokespersons not losing any opportunity to qualify its likely architects – the Father, the son, and the MMM’s leader – in quite disparaging terms. Would this mean that such a remake would sound the death knell of the Alliance de l’Avenir? 

Nita Deerpalsing: Good of you to start this interview on a humourous note! On a serious note, let’s look at facts.

Number 1, you will remember that it’s the same Medpoint Alliance which lost a by-election in 2003 in a seat left vacant by no less than its former Prime Minister – a seat which was supposed to be a solid safe seat for them.

Number 2, you know that in the July 2005 general elections, we, in l’Alliance Sociale, led by Navin Ramgoolam, gave the Medpoint alliance a resounding defeat.

Number 3, you will also remember that the very same Medpoint Alliance got totally crushed, in an unprecedented electoral defeat in the municipal elections of October 2005. Number 4, they also lost the District Council elections in the same year.

Number 5, the MMM lost yet another election in the by-election of constituency number 8 in 2008, at the hands of the Labour Party machinery even if we didn’t align a candidate in that by-election.

That’s 4 elections lost by the Medpoint Alliance in the face of a Labour Party-led Alliance and 6 elections, yes SIX elections — in a row lost by the MMM if you count the last general elections of 2010!

Number 6, the Medpoint Alliance of 2000-05 managed to take the country to the brink of economic bankruptcy, in the self-confessed words of their own then Prime Minister to a “situation dramatique et sans précédent. Nous sommes dans un état d’urgence économique”. That was in the last year of their mandate. Need I remind you that they inherited a GDP growth of 10.2% when Labour left in 2000 and managed the wonderfully competent feat of getting it to plummet to 2.2% when they left in 2005? They also got the unemployment rate to rise year after year, peaking at 9.6%. Remember the famous “on perd des emplois à une vitesse vertigineuse”? That was another confession. As if that was not enough, go and take a look at what happened to public sector debt when that oh-so-competent and intellectually limitless Medpoint Alliance was in power! It was 67% when they came to power in 2000 and went up to 70.9 the next year, even going to 71.4 in one of the years after. En parenthèse, please note that Hon Berenger in his speech on the budget a few weeks ago, insisted that when public debt goes above 62% you are in the danger zone… And oh, may I just remind you that this is the same Medpoint Alliance which raised the VAT by 50% in 12 months? This is the same Medpoint Alliance which terrorised old people with their botched up policy of targeting the Basic Retirement Pensions? To the point of having to come in front of the people and formally apologise for it?

Number 7, in what was boasted as “le pays le mieux géré au monde”, the Medpoint Alliance with a crushing majority of 54 against 6, did not have time to bring any Equal Opportunities Bill, any Empowerment Programme, any dedicated programme – let alone a full-fledged ministry – for Social Integration, any Truth and Justice Commission, any littlest amendment to the Constitution to allow for more women in the local government elections or the national elections. But lo and behold, they did have time with their near-absolute majority to change the Constitution to … eliminate the Economic Crime Office with a certificate of urgency within a mere 24 hours while the Mauritian population was sleeping at night. And of course, in the same “pays le mieux géré au monde”, the Medpoint Alliance’s Minister of Finance, Pravin Jugnauth, happened to have the difficult task of approving a payment of Rs 45 millions in favour of the Sun Trust. I could go on, but I sense you want me to stop here…

But I just want to say this: you thought we, in the Labour Party don’t want to talk about the Medpoint Alliance?! Hell no! We WANT to talk about them! Whether they cover up as “remake” – perhaps because “dans le sillage du scandale du scièle”, after having covered every inch of every poster board with the “Zotte mem aster, zotte meme vender” Medpoint affiche, the MMM is obviously deeply embarrassed to use the logical Medpoint Alliance 2 title, and has opted for a change of name to the flavourless “Remake”. But, comme dirait l’autre, un remake c’est un remake! And if remake there is, Medpoint may truly be the catalyst! Is there’s an inquiry to kill? We’ve got the perfect dream team for that! A good reason to strike an alliance… dans l’intérêt du pays of course! Don’t forget that the leader of the MSM and another MSM member of the clan familial are currently on bail in the context of the Medpoint scandal…

OK, I see you want to move on… Oh did I mention that when the great Medpoint Alliance was in power, that great super-competent dream team, those people super-sensitive to the cause of the poor, when they were in power, the 10% richest people – the 10th decile – got richer by some 6%? That is their income INCREASED by some 6%? And that EVERYONE else was WORSE off at the end of their time in power? That EVERYONE else’s income DECREASED, from the 10% poorest, to the middle class, to those in the 9th decile? Did I mention that? Those are CSO figures by the way.. 

* OK. But while it is true that things are moving in different sectors in terms of infrastructure development, Equal Opportunity Act, Truth & Justice Commission, there are equally other disturbing matters that do a disservice to the present government: the latest Transparency International’s rating of Mauritius, the uncertainty about ‘municipal elections and allegations of gerrymandering, projects like Rose Gardens, scuffle at NPCC, Betamax… Unfair criticisms? Or are they the doing of a hostile – ‘une mauvaise presse’?  

Again, let’s look at facts. Go and check the Transparency International rankings since 1999. Our best rank since then is 36th in 1999 and 37th in 2000 when a Labour-led government was in power. Our worst rank since then is 54th in 2004. I’ll let you try to remember who was in power then. And when the MCB affair got out. And who told who not to make it public… Our best score of 5.5 was in 2008. Our worst score was 4.1, again in 2004. As for the other cases you mentioned, there are inquiries going on and let me remind you that these inquiries were initiated by the government itself! If this is not an indication that institutions are actually working independently, then what is? Some people and incredibly, even the local representative of Transparency Mauritius has ridiculously mentioned Wikileaks where someone from the US supposedly said that the people at the ICAC are nominated by the PM here. I hope the guy from Transparency Mauritius knows that in the US, Supreme Court judges are nominated by the President, that is, the Executive! So please, talking for the sake of selling a sound-bite quote on the radio is rather entertaining but having genuine substance rather than flimsy re-hashed allegations, would be more serious on the part of an organisation like Transparency Mauritius. But then again, when an organisation has a “president-à-vie”, what can you expect? Have you ever been to the Transparency Mauritius website? Plus transparent que ça tu meurs, one would be tempted to say – sarcastically of course! 

Now let’s come to the favourite sport of the MMM. Throw mud. Keep throwing mud until doubt is created and it actually sticks and stains. The editorialist of Weekend seems to be an expert in DNA affairs – maybe this is something she could study? Should we go take a walk back to the Sheik Hossen syndrome? 

I am flabbergasted at the gratuitous allegations made by the Opposition regarding gerrymandering. Do you realise that they said government has done something illegal? Do you realise that they’ve pointed an accusing finger to Mr Irfan Rahman, someone who’s known not only in Mauritius but internationally for his unflinching integrity? Do you realise that they’ve given rise to doubts about the Electoral Boundaries Commission headed by Mr Aboobackar, another person widely known for his independence? 

Now, let us say that there was genuine confusion in the mind of the leader of the opposition. It was Tuesday, on a day that Parliament sits. What would any right-thinking Mauritian expect? Is it not that the Leader of the Opposition, who is the ONLY person out of the 1.3 million people in this country to have access to the Private Notice Question tool, to put a PNQ to the Prime Minister and grill the latter if he can on the issue? Why not seize that unique opportunity to clarify everything in Parliament, face to face with the PM? Why forego the power of a PNQ on that day?

Why run to the President instead? What was going on? Was this all part of a political gimmick? Is the President being politically pressurized to resign in the context of a political agenda? Have institutions like the Electoral Supervisory Commission and the Electoral Boundaries Commission, not to mention the State Law Office, been ruthlessly and unceremoniously whirled in the wind of a purely political agenda?

The population of this country needs answers from the Leader of the Opposition because this is too serious a matter! He has himself said that countries can explode if there is no trust in electoral supervisory institutions. And he was absolutely right to say that. Now that there have been the explanations given in Parliament by the PM, it would seem that the concerns of the MMM have been cleared. If this is the case, we can only hope that the Leader of the Opposition will, in the interest of this country, offer a public apology to Mr Irfan Rahman and the institution he heads. On the other hand, if the Opposition still has any doubts, then again in the interest of the country, it should not dilly-dally one single second before they actually do what they said they would do, that is, go to the Supreme Court. This is way too serious. It has to be either an apology or go to Supreme Court.

We’re not talking about political people being pointed fingers here. We are talking about crucial institutions of a democracy being caught in the clouds of doubts of no less than the Leader of the Opposition!

This is important, the more so because we have in this country, not a “mauvaise presse” but a press majorly subjugated to the MMM. Not all the journalists are “à la solde du MMM”. But the cognitive bias is absolutely out of this world! The other day in the corridors of Parliament my colleagues MPs and Ministers from a legal background were explaining to some young journalists the flaws in Mr Berenger’s argument. It was incredible. You could see that they were following the logic and could have seen the explanations clearly if they were not being blocked by something. They kept saying: “But can he be wrong”? That was mammoth cognitive bias staring you in the face! And yet they’re not even aware of it! Which is even more dangerous. 

* But to come back to those projects and decisions which give the government a bad press, why is it that inspite of the “méfiance” of the head of the government – he apparently does not trust easily, it would seem – as regard his own ministers (and I suppose that should include the political appointees as well), many of the latter sometimes keep on doing him a bad turn? Is there a culture problem there?

The Prime Minister has always said it and keeps saying it. When he nominates anyone to any post, it’s not a reward. It’s a position of responsibility. And the PM expects everyone to deliver according to the responsibility entrusted upon them. So everyone has to take their own responsibility. There is no culture problem. There is a country problem. You’ve probably heard thousands of anecdotes about the degrading work culture and work ethic in this country. Well it so happens if you look at our productivity statistics from the CSO, there is cause for concern!

Public sector or private sector, people today don’t seem to take their work seriously! Have you been to a supermarket or to any shop lately and been wowed by the customer service? More often than not, if you seek the assistance of a salesperson, you are made to feel almost guilty for disturbing them! So yes we do have a problem, let’s face it and not play the ostrich! But you’ll agree with me that neither the PM, nor the government can come into every house and tell people what living up to their responsibilities is all about? So many people, even in politics, are running after titles and privileges. Whatever happened to the intrinsic honour and self-value of one’s sincere hard work? Is that not more valuable than the title of a post? Or the whistles and bells that go with it?  

* What’s your take on the Truth and Justice Commission’s recommendations? Do you think it’s a balanced report? 

To be very honest, with the marathon hours of parliamentary sittings over the last 2 weeks, I haven’t had a chance to read the voluminous 4 reports. But I have taken note of the summary recommendations.

Let us not forget that it’s this Prime Minister, Dr Navin Ramgoolam who put the idea of setting up a Truth and Justice Commission in the 2005 electoral manifest, put it in the 2005-2010 Government Programme and actually set up the TJC. It was Navin Ramgoolam who set it up, not the others who talk incessantly in the opposition but even when they have a 54-6 majority, they don’t walk the talk.

The PM has said it will be discussed in Cabinet, and I have no reason to believe that government will not take decisions it thinks it needs to take in the light of the report submitted by the TJC.

I see that the Church has just sent out a communiqué saying they are willing to participate in a “démarche nationale de demande de pardon”. Like the PM said in Parliament yesterday, I don’t quite see how the Mauritius as a State is concerned with this “demande de pardon”. When slavery was practiced, Mauritius was still a colony, it wasn’t a State. And when we became a State in 1968, slavery had already been abolished a long time back! So as the PM said, all this has to be examined dispassionately.

* Perhaps one of the important questions that comes up as regard the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations: who will foot the bill?

You will note that the idea of cash compensation is not really being entertained. But then again, cash or no cash, the question of who will foot the bill is related to who actually inflicted the wounds of slavery… Which is itself not a simple question to answer…Let us not prejudge the debate that will naturally come out in the context of these reports by the TJC.

* The Governor of the Bank of Mauritius has not minced his words in his Bank’s Annual Dinner speech to the bankers – a word which may henceforth be spelled “banksters”, he said, to rime with gangster – who should be urged to “reconnect with reality unless they are keen to stock discontent”. Harsh words, aren’t they?

Well I find it amusing to hear that the local banking sector actually felt quite offended! This term banksters has been in the international press for a while now, and it pretty much points to the astounding profits made or the incredible risks written by the world of financial transactions amidst the collapse of whole countries and their economic framework. I understand it’s a word revived from the 1930s when some American academics were pondering on the causes of the 1929 crash. Honestly, there’s nothing to be personally offended about!

The Governor – no surprise there — has tried to be provocative. And even if it’s in the context of self-enlightened interests, it is to be hoped that the banking sector will seriously pour over the imbalances and the distortions in their industry so that one day they don’t get caught in any Occupy Bank type of action.

* But nothing has changed despite the fact that the Governor has been saying more or less the same thing these last two years. Why is that so?

I wouldn’t say that nothing has changed! This government has come to an unprecedented agreement with the bankers to put Rs 3 billion at the disposal of SMEs at a rate of 8.5%! This is a major breakthrough for the SMEs and I know that the negotiations with the banking sector was not easy at all. But government with the help of the BoM have spearheaded the way forward on this and I’m not sure that this would have happened under say, the Medpoint Alliance!

Can you imagine what it would have been without this Governor at the BoM? Please go and take a look by how much our currency lost value before he went there. And look at the jump in inflation that was caused by the successful lobbys who keep harping on competitiveness but in fact they only want to surf on a fake and unsustainable currency competitiveness instead of bringing the internal reforms and investments needed for lasting, intrinsic competitiveness. If CMT can do it, I don’t see why others can’t do it unless they just want to surf on the power of their lobby. Thank goodness, this is not one Governor to be taken in by the usual suspects.

* The bankers – the lions, in particular, as Mr Bheenick emphasized – who are competing against each other to post “supernormal profits” are known to have powerful allies in Parliament (sometimes on both sides of the House) and in the media. Allies which have proved sufficiently strong to frustrate or obstruct any initiative that may weaken their dominant positions. I guess your experience at the Democratisation Commission has informed you about this other “reality”, hasn’t it?

Of course! Well lobbyists are not just in Mauritius. I recently read an article about an investigation by the Bureau of Investigative journalism in the UK. The article in the Independent highlighted the access that a lobbyist company has with MPs and people in government.

It’s no surprise that Mauritius has its own creed of lobbyists as well as “friends” in Parliament or in government. What is important is to have at the head of the country a Prime Minister who sees through all these games and I can emphatically tell you that our PM, Dr Navin Ramgoolam is not of the mettle of either being blind to these games or letting himself influenced in favour of lobbyists of all kinds against public interests.

And let me tell you that the lobbyists need not only be in Cabinet or Parliament. They can also take the form of powerful public officers. I have personally come across such a case in the past in one of the organisations within the Sugar industry. And I think there is no better example of the PM’s determination to knock down such lobbyists than the revision of the Multi Annual Adaptation Strategy which had been mostly penned by a powerful and protected “commis du service public”.

Lobbyists will always exist and the way they corrupt their collaborators in the public sector or Parliament or Cabinet is not always necessarily just by monetary means. There are also cognitive biases which are played upon or personal complexes which can be played upon. At the end of the day, what matters is that there are and always will be people who can see through and gauge what public interest is and be driven only by the public interest motive.

I know this is easier said than done in a country where being invited to a “chassée” can be deemed to be an incredible honour or favour! Although, frankly as a vegetarian I can hardly imagine a more horrendous thing. But this is where having an independent mind and being a person of character is so important. And I can tell you, even if you are, you are under attack all the time, it’s constant work to protect one’s character.

* Would not the success of lobbyists in succesfully obstructing government’s initiatives suggest that it may not be only a question of the “conservatives” – as usually qualified by the Labour Party – being strong or more powerful than the government, but rather it boils down to the fact that it’s the latter that has gone soft and indeed weak, the more so with the narrow majority it now commands in Parliament?

I think the PM has said time and again. Narrow majority or not, principles remain principles and I can tell you it is not this PM who will have any fear or favour on account of a narrow majority or whatever else.

There was a major parliamentary event this week! Do you realise that a government with a “narrow” majority of 5 has passed a Constitutional amendment requiring three quarters of votes in Parliament? Do you realise that the same Constitutional amendment opening the way to a major increase in the participation of women in politics was not brought by the Medpoint Alliance which commanded a majority of 54 vs 6?

You know why? Because of the power of convictions. It the power of this government’s convictions which, even with a theoretical majority of 5 in Parliament, has allowed it to pass a bill requiring ¾ of the votes! THIS is what all these people who’ve been going on and on about small, weak, fragile majority should be talking about. But of course they won’t.

So there is no such thing as going soft or weak. The power of our convictions still animate us and will continue to drive us to implement policies which are in line with our ultimate convictions.

* Some intense lobbying efforts backed by a couple of press articles/interviews have successfully brought the current government to roll back fiscal measures it applauded one year earlier – the Capital Gains tax and the tax on bank interests. We know that the PM brought up the statistics to demonstrate that his ex-Finance minister got it wrong, but it may also indicate a problem with the resolve of the government to stand its ground, isn’t it?

Let’s get this straight. The resolve of this government is not to look good in the book of doctrines or dogma. The resolve of this government is to implement measures which in the context it is living in, will go the longest way to uplift people and put at their disposal the means for their empowerment. This is what the Labour Party has been doing since 1936 and this is what the Labour Party will continue to do, now as it celebrates its 75th year of existence and tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. At the end of the day it’s about empowering people. Unleashing their full potential.

Now if you see that corrective actions have to be taken because policy measures taken before are not taking you to the unleashing of this country’s potential, then you have to do it.

It is true that in the prevailing international context, we have done things that maybe we wouldn’t have taken in some other context. But right now, we need inclusive growth and we need to incentivise the people who can keep the economy growing be it the big corporate or the SMEs. Policy measures are not a one-way street. If tomorrow government finds that all the incentives it has given is just being used as freebies for rent-seekers, rather than actual incentives to invest and grow, then government will have to reassess. This is what governments driven by genuine convictions do, all over the world and it’s no different for us.

Of course doctrinaires and policy purists will say that there is a need for constancy and predictability of policy measures. To a large extent, I agree. But governments cannot and should not be in a contest of “constancy of policy measures” nor a prisoner of doctrine books. I say it again, at the end of the day, it is the ultimate results which count and if governments have to change policies in order to ensure the constancy of results, then so it should. 

* The current government’s resolve to really walk the democratisation talk will be tested with its handling of the energy issue and the question of “expanding the circle of opportunities” for new entrants in the tourism sector. Nothing forthcoming so far with regard to energy, no revised IPP-CEB agreement, and the Tourism Village at Belle Mare will be privatised! What will the Labour Party say to the people at election time? That it needs another mandate to fulfil its promises?

The government’s resolve to walk the democratisation talk is already there for everyone to see! Except those of bad faith! Which Prime Minister has negotiated firmly with the sugar barons in favour of small planters, artisans, metayers? Which Prime Minister has overseen the setting up of the Competition Commission? Under which PM has the Empowerment Programme been introduced? Under which PM is this Marshall Plan of Rs 3 billion for the SMEs being implemented?

Come on, you know that democratisation is about multiplying the number of economic wealth creators operating on as best a level playing field as possible. And this is precisely what this government is doing!

I can also tell you that in an effort to take democratisation/empowerment to a grass roots level, the Commission for Economic Democratisation is embarking on an ambitious agro-ecology project with the collaboration of the Ministries of Agriculture, Social Integration, Gender, and SMEs. We are truly excited about this project which combines the concepts of entrepreneurship, food security and agro-ecology.

Don’t worry about the Labour Party. We will indeed have plenty of things to say AND show by the time we come to election in some 4 years time!

* Published in print edition on 9 December 2011

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