Labour Party-L’Espoir Alliance: ‘It’s doable, winnable and workable’

Interview: Manou Bheenick

* ‘Coalitions are fragile creatures and tend to break down mid-course or earlier. This obviously won’t do, not this time’

 * ‘A prudent government would have behaved in a more responsible manner, doing a much better job to ensure not just value for money in every rupee of public expenditure, but also in ensuring that its citizens do not grow accustomed to still more state handouts’

In this necessarily lengthy interview, Manou Bheenick gives his assessment of the current regime’s management since 2019 of the country, its institutions and the economy, including the dire situation at the Central Bank, the steep depreciation of our currency and the hijacking of our national reserves. That all the checks and balances inbuilt have, according to him, lamentably failed, is enough reason, he argues, to fully justify an alliance of all Opposition forces in a tripartite alliance against the heavy electoral artillery and the amassed war-chest of the MSM. Opposition leaders, he adds, have a quasi-obligation to make such an alliance doable and workable in order to get the country out of the rot and leave a legacy for future generations to build on.

Mauritius Times: It’s issues related to governance that have dominated local politics in 2021, and indeed since the present government has assumed office in December 2019. These governance issues have distracted people’s attention from the real state of the economy. What do the statistics indicate about the present economic situation, and based on current trends what do you think it is likely to be three years down the road?

Manou Bheenick: Governance concerns have rightly emerged as a top-of-the-mind issue for our right-thinking citizens, and this since well before the controversial and deeply-flawed 2019 general elections.

Those who have democracy in their bloodstream have never swallowed the deal where Daddy stepped down in favour of sonny boy who was elevated to the prime ministership, never mind the electorate or democratic principles. Did that show the slightest concern for ethics and governance?

It disrupted a democratic tradition that this country had adhered to steadfastly since its independence half a century ago. Mauritians used to be quite proud of their untarnished democratic credentials.

Concern about governance has not just distracted attention from other burning issues, including economic performance. The lack of it – and the prevailing sense of entitlement in the political/administrative/legal nomenklatura that has spawned contempt for due process, transparency, and democratic accountability – are at the very heart of our bad performance in so many metrics where we were previously ahead of the pack.

* What about the statistics? What do they tell us?

The statistics tell their own story. If we round figures and take 2014, the year Labour left office, as our reference point, we can discern the sorry trajectory fairly easily without getting bogged down in too many details.

GDP per capita was Rs 311,000 and ended 2021 at an estimated Rs 362,000 after a precipitous fall the year before. National GDP rose from Rs 392 billion to Rs 462 billion.

Gross Domestic Savings fell from Rs 41.6 billion in 2014 to Rs 35.4 billion in 2020 and, at Rs 41.5 billion in 2021, have barely recovered to their 2014 level.

Gross Domestic Fixed Capital Formation, roughly national investment, which had shot up by 26% in 2020 – turbocharged by the pharaonic Covid-defying malinvestment in the not-fit-for-purpose metro line and the egregiously wasteful Cote d’Or sports complex, which is itself reportedly about to be dwarfed by an even more spectacular high-rise World Trade Centre – has retreated to a more affordable level of just below 20% of GDP.

Private sector investment is yet to recover to its 2019 level, and this despite massive injections of public money via the MIC pumping machine which has drained public resources upwards to the super-rich in a flood of such proportions that it easily reverses the effects of years of trickle-down.

Throughout this sorry saga, if we strip out the left-leaning verbiage in much official discourse, and relying on the legacy that is likely to be left behind, we have little to comfort us about the way ahead. The metro and the sports complex, to name only these two, are not boosting our job creation or growth potential. If anything, they are dragging us down as they are millstones round the neck of future taxpayers who must fork out to service the burdensome debt and maintenance costs of these projects.

Where shall we be by 2025? I am afraid it’ll probably be a worse place than where we find ourselves today if this regime doesn’t mend its ways and is allowed to continue unchecked. The question is whether we want to be there; and if not, what we are prepared to do about it.

* The Government voted for a Rs147bn Covid-19 war chest – the fourth largest in the world, it would seem – and has already spent dozens of billions to date with a view to, as stated by the Finance minister, saving jobs and distressed companies. Whether this money has been well spent or not and whether this will help revive the economy to pre-pandemic levels remain to be seen. What do you think?

The pandemic created a state of emergency and governments across the world, irrespective of their political persuasion, all stepped in to prop up their collapsing economies while combating the health and sanitary crisis. That’s what governments are meant to do, in exceptional circumstances.

But pandemics do end, and circumstances do normalise. And when they do, governments shift down so as not to crowd out the private sector and to encourage individual initiative. And bring public finances back within established metrics.

A prudent government would have behaved in a more responsible manner, doing a much better job to ensure not just value for money in every rupee of public expenditure, but also in ensuring that its citizens do not grow accustomed to still more state handouts, given that the public treasury is not only saddled with the rising cost of a generous welfare state but is also visibly crumbling under the weight of an universal and unfunded old age pension for its ageing population.

Earning a place in the world’s top five Covid-spenders is probably a better reflection, not of a very caring government, but of an extremely spendthrift one. In the absence of better health outcomes, it is a much better indication of how wastefully this government has frittered away its hard-earned tax rupees, supplemented by the reserves from a supine central bank. The scandal-ridden Covid Emergency Procurement seems to have been effortlessly transformed into a cash cow to reward supporters and agents of the regime via insider-dealing, cost-padding, manufacturing conditions to trigger emergency procedures…

When the country was in lockdown, with most of the economy shut down, public expenditure helped the affected population pull through. When export revenues dried up, large chunks of the export economy would have defaulted on their debts, triggering a banking crisis if the state had not ridden to the rescue.

We disagree on the type and manner of the rescue. Typical of this regime, it was done in complete opacity; it fudged the line between the central bank and the public treasury; it was mispriced and wasteful; it has placed the central bank’s balance sheet at grave risk; and it has shot to pieces whatever credibility the central bank still had and, even worse, undermined its ability to conduct monetary and exchange rate policy.

* The underlying objective was right, wasn’t it?

Yes, but the money has certainly NOT been well spent. Similar outcomes could have been achieved with more limited financial support. We could have done without the steep cost to the public and thus reduced the burden on future taxpayers. We could have contained the damage to financial and fiscal discipline and enhanced the credibility of our government to redress the economy.

We could have respected the central bank’s reputation instead of exerting fiscal dominance via debt monetization and hijacking reserves, which we actually began well before Covid. Faced with the same set of external circumstances as us in the post-Covid world, any country that has not systematically bungled with its policies and institutions, as we have done, will most certainly be in a much better position to claw its way back and romp ahead faster than we can.

* With the onset of the Covid pandemic, which has wreaked havoc on the global economy and exposed the inadequacies of many institutions, it has been argued that an era of bigger – and perhaps bolder – government has arrived. This could have provided the government with an opportunity to build a fairer, more sustainable and more resilient economy as well as encourage more responsible business practices. Is that another lost opportunity?

I believe it would be a grave misinterpretation to conclude from the Covid experience that it inaugurates an era of bigger and bolder government. It was a purely conjunctural response, not a structural one.

Government, with such private sector subcontractors as are available to it, is better placed to carry out and deliver such exceptional operations as fighting a war, even if it concerns only a war against a virus.

Big government continues to be plagued with the same big issues that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. On our very small scale, emergency Covid-related procurement has generated enough scandals – coming on the back of Saint Louis Gate, Safe City and other ongoing procurement scandals involving a public authority – to stifle any lingering desire to extend the area under government’s direct purview.

Our watchdog institutions seem in no hurry whatever to clear the air as all these cases are dragging on for years without any closure on the horizon. And remember, the bigger the government, the bigger the tax take to keep it going. There’s little appetite anywhere else to raise extra taxes to finance a bigger government.

* If big government is no more on the cards than it was pre-Covid, does it imply that we must not increase the role of institutions to remedy the weaknesses that have surfaced in, for example, the fight against Covid?

Internationally it is clear that WHO, which has done a very commendable job, must be re-engineered and strengthened. At the local level, our Ministry of Health is itself a suitable case for treatment. Our health personnel has produced some Covid heroes and we bow before them.

It is, however, quite strange that such a large budgetivore government department has got away for so long without an in-depth review or a close scrutiny of its activities. Rumours of individual fiefdoms, to say nothing of procurement controversies and other passe-droits must be laid to rest.

Of course, I believe that we have lost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to strike a major blow for our one-generation-old objective of a fairer and more equal society. We have always stuck to our guns in trying to achieve it via trickle-down.

Some two years ago, in the very first Covid interview I gave you; I had anticipated a special facility to fund our efforts to combat Covid and had broached the possibility of using it to advance our distributive agenda and address pressing social concerns.

This is indeed a missed opportunity. We could have done wonders with some well-fashioned conditionalities attached to all public bailouts of private enterprises by the misconceived, misnamed, and maladministered vehicle floated on a sea of central bank money, and oddly operating under the central bank itself, the Mauritius Investment Corporation, existing side by side with the long-established State Investment Corporation.

The conditionalities could have addressed our equality, transparency, good corporate citizenship, and inclusiveness concerns while giving primacy in collateral rank order to MIC debt to minimise its balance sheet risk. Whether it would have made the assisted sectors more resilient or not would depend on their sector of operation and how the world emerges from the pandemic. Given the sheer size of the bailout, it would most certainly have led to a fairer society. But, sadly, that’s water under the bridge.

* In view of the governance issues which have hogged the headlines and the apparent unwillingness of the government to address them head on as well as its business-as-usual attitude, it has been argued in our columns that the way out of the present deadlock can only be a political solution through a credible and workable alternative. That does not seem to be forthcoming so far in view of the ageing and obviously divided political leadership on the other side of the fence. What’s your take on that?

We have reached a terminal stage of deliquescence in public life. It is not something that the common man should ignore and leave it to be sorted out by the politicos, young or old. The official opposition is muzzled and hamstrung in its parliamentary action by an openly partisan speakership that is nothing short of a national disgrace. The extra-parliamentary, and more vocal, opposition is stymied at every corner.

I very much doubt whether, on closer scrutiny, we can still make the cut as a parliamentary democracy. I quake with fear when I hear cries of Sel Solution Revolution – i.e., Revolution is the Only Solution, in our local Creole language – as our home-grown aspiring revolutionaries seem to be little bothered by the potential of our ever-present ethno-religious fault lines to set the powder keg ablaze by igniting right-wing extremism along the lines of what’s happening elsewhere.

The way out of our current mess is the tried and tested one of the voter booth, provided there are stronger and immediate safeguards against outside interference, mass induction of migrant labour on the electoral register, alleged illegal political financing from tainted money, electoral bribery, vote rigging and results-fixing, all of which seem to have played a part in landing us with the current regime.

May I make a side remark here to point out that in our first Covid interview which I referred to earlier, I had pointed out, in those early days, that we could envisage what I had called an “administration of national unity” to deliver the exceptional policy and financial support package that the unprecedented crisis called for. This could have constituted a political solution to address part of the Covid programme which could have been hammered out between the parties. Without any political alliance on other issues. The window of opportunity for such a topical solution is long gone.

To pick up the thread, there is no provision for such safeguards beyond the dispositions that failed so spectacularly at the last popular consultation. In such circumstances, one could have expected a dose of judicial activism in our search for a remedy but our judicial system has proved of little avail so far.

I see moral and ethical bankruptcy alright, and financial looting too, but I am afraid I see little sign of any political deadlock as such. The government, which never had a popular majority to begin with, has enough clout to lord it over the opposition in parliament. It does as it pleases. And, unheard of elsewhere, it draws on the complicity of the Speaker to expel Opposition members, including the Leader of the Opposition, for prolonged terms from Assembly sittings. No deadlock there, if you ask me.

Unpopular and unprincipled as the regime is, it is probably here to stay and will prolong its misrule right to the very last day of its mandated term of office. There is a faint ray of hope that it will find itself on slippery ground with a couple of electoral petitions which are now, after protracted delays and legal entanglements, fast moving to decision stage in the Supreme Court.

* The latest we hear from the ‘L’Espoir’ people is that the MMM and the PMSD leaders would have finally yielded to the Labour Party leader’s conditions for an enlarged opposition alliance to be led by his party and with himself as the prime ministerial candidate. Such an alliance, they hope, should be able to wrest power from the MSM, but that appears to be their principal objective – or ‘programme’ as our local parlance would have it. How do you react to that?

The Westminster parliamentary model works best in two-party mode in its own country of origin, with much jostling among hopeful third parties to dislodge one of the main formations or strike an alliance of some sort to make it to the top rung.

I only mention it because it was this model that served as the inspiration for our own constitution, including our parliament, but we had to make it work without the benefit of a domestic democratic political tradition or a party-political structure rooted in centuries of history.

And, until recently – that is, until the whole kit and caboodle was expertly emasculated and bowdlerised into an elective autocracy – the system turned out better than expected and served us quite well over four long and eventful decades when we pulled ourselves up from a least developed country to a high middle-income one.

Now, however, it is well and truly broken. It badly needs fixing. It is crying out for reform. The surprising thing is that the demolition job was carried out by a minority government which bagged more seats at the last general election because of three-cornered fights–or worse in many electoral constituencies.

The hitch is that we have encountered unexpected obstacles in what were only meant to be speed blocks. Unchanged constituency limits have ensured that one-person-one-vote no longer equates to an equal voice in national affairs as the bigger constituencies have three to four times the number of voters than the smaller ones. The provisions for revising constituency borders have proved inoperable in practice.

We require a three-quarters parliamentary majority to change some of the fundamental constitutional provisions that have failed to work and thereby failed to protect citizens and institutions, including regulatory and watchdog institutions, from the tentacles of a totalitarian regime. Paper-thin majorities and coalition politics rarely result in such support.

The sheer cost of elections which are borne, not by the state but by party supporters and voluntary sponsors, provides another strong incentive not to contest the coming elections en ordre dispersé but to spare no effort to dislodge the regime and stop the spreading rot it has brought with it.

Reports of the massive political war chest amassed by the regime, allegedly from gambling cronies and beneficiaries of proliferating public procurement boondoggles, indicate anything but a fair fight ahead. All the more reason, therefore, for the opposition to unite their separate strengths in a common fight around a shared programme that addresses the concerns of our citizens.

It is encouraging that the MMM and PMSD leaders have now rallied round Navin Ramgoolam to lead this alliance. Their earlier stand on this issue would have turned the Alliance de l’Espoir into a stalking horse for the regime.

* However, two questions that are bound to be raised in due course as regards any future ‘L’Espoir’ alliance that brings together Ramgoolam, Bérenger, Duval under the same tent are: first, would it be workable, and second, is it winnable? Recent history could provide answers to these questions, don’t you think?

It’s a big tent, of course. But it also has a big challenge confronting it. Without such a challenge, this tripartite alliance would have been inconceivable not only for the party leaders but also for much of their respective party faithful.

We have the three established tenors of our political landscape on board. It is far preferable to have all three of them in, and run the risk of any of them occasionally pissing out, than leave anyone out and cope with his regular pissing in, don’t you think?

With such a broad and united front, we stand a much better chance of getting greater buy-in from the electorate to take on the MSM.

The Kaya Kistnen murder — which our national police had written off illico presto in a rare and uncharacteristic burst of efficiency as a case of suicide, despite evidence to the contrary — threw up in the public domain a carnet laboutik detailing the inner workings of a well-oiled electoral machinery that delivered the vote in favour of the regime by questionable means.

We would not appear to have any effective means of scotching out such vote-buying during an election campaign before it has influenced the election results; and after the results, any electoral petitions get caught up in legal entanglements so that the illegally elected serve out almost half their term before the cases are heard.

It would require greater vigilance, which means more trained party workers, to help in snuffing out what the Electoral Supervisory Commission is not equipped to do and what the police seems unwilling to do either. The Tripartite Alliance can envisage taking on such a role much better than any of its constituent parties ever could on their own.

* But is it winnable? Is it workable?

I answer an enthusiastic YES to both questions.

It’s certainly more winnable than the alternative of each opposition party going its own separate way. The three leaders have logged up considerable experience of working together in government or in opposition.

Navin Ramgoolam has led a winning alliance with Paul Berenger in 1995. Their alliance lost in 2019. Xavier Duval served under Ramgoolam as Minister before joining him thrice in an electoral alliance, losing the 2000 election, but winning in 2004 and 2010. Ramgoolam’s 2010 winning alliance was actually a tripartite one, with both Duval and Pravind Jugnauth’s MSM.

So, what can we conclude from this record? Ramgoolam is a natural leader of such a tripartite line-up as an old hand in cobbling together and leading such coalitions. Labour has spurned previous approaches to join the emerging alliance without Ramgoolam. Duval and Berenger have worked well together in opposition in recent years although Ramgoolam had previously failed to bring them under one umbrella in his 2019 alliance.

But the record also shows that coalitions are fragile creatures and tend to break down mid-course or earlier. Often, with bad blood and poaching and defections. This obviously won’t do, not this time. The electorate may need some reassurance before lending its support.

We can probably borrow from the practice that has developed in the marriage market from the experience of failed marriages and the acrimonious litigation that often ensued before they could be dissolved.

We believe that a kind of pre-nuptial agreement, setting out the heads of agreement on major reforms and strategies envisaged and their time-table, could be at the core of this, together with arrangements to continue to support this core programme into the law books even if, for whatever reason, the alliance were to break down. Part of this core program will figure in the electoral manifesto to canvass the voters.

The Tripartite Alliance should refrain from pushing its own solution to thorny issues regarding the Constitution, the judiciary and legal system, the police, law and order, language, and culture in its programme.

It should rather canvass the principle of setting up specific commissions, tasked with the objective of delivering rapidly on the change mandate in each of these areas, within a specified time-table to facilitate early implementation.

It’s doable, winnable. and workable. We owe it to the next generation which we have carelessly saddled with the bill for the immoral mismanagement of recent years to give it our best shot. I can’t think of a better shot, can you?

* Published in print edition on 14 January 2022

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