Chief Sec on 1 year in office: Ups, downs and lessons learnt

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Chief Secretary Farley Augustine speaks during an interview with Newsday. – THA

IT has been a year of ups, downs, learning, and the beginning of a new journey for Tobago’s fifth Chief Secretary, Farley Augustine.

Augustine, former deputy political leader of the Progressive Democratic Patriots (PDP), led his team to a 14-1 victory over the incumbent People’s National Movement (PNM) in the December 6, 2021, Tobago House of Assembly(THA) elections, to break a 6-6 impasse from earlier that year.

Reminiscing over that fateful election night, Augustine, in an interview with Newsday at the Shaw Park Cultural Complex on December 1, recalled surreal emotions as the results came in.

“I was looking at 12 seats, but that was an enormous win.”

As he followed the results on TV that night at his Speyside home, Augustine told Newsday memories of his mother, who died a year ago, were the first thoughts that ran across his mind, when he realised he had won the confidence of Tobago and ended the 21-year reign of the PNM.

“That quickly shifted from the emotions and the height of that moment to figuring out how to set up the government. Nothing really prepares you for the actual thing.”

He was sworn in as chief secretary on December 9, and got married three days later.

But his tenure has not been entirely smooth sailing. Indeed, some might say that the honeymoon is over.

Augustine himself would acknowledge that. But he said there has been many successes and lessons learned from failures.

The falling-out with his PDP political leader Watson Duke remains unresolved.

But Augustine is hopeful for the future while also preparing for fatherhood .

Even on difficult days, Augustine said, he has no regrets.

“I spent this last year, December-December, managing two new careers, essentially managing the new career leading the government of the island of Tobago, and also managing a new family.”

Augustine said low productivity in the THA, at times resulting in late payments, has been his biggest challenge in governing the island.

“The most frustrating thing for me over the last year has been not having a public service that is designed to work with the kinds of efficiency, the kinds of speed that I will like, and I have a mantra: we have to put speed and efficiency in the same room.”

He plans to introduce a reward system to motivate THA employees.

100-DAY ACTION PLAN

In early 2021, the PDP launched a mandate with an eight-point 100-day action plan designed “to allow Tobago to experience an early start to its development thrust for 2021.”

By the hundredth day, March 20, the new administration had removed the dress code at THA public offices. The move was widely applauded, with Trinidadians calling on authorities there to end the archaic policy.

The objective of the 100-day action plan was to have a targeted focus on dealing with issues surrounding crime, accountability, youth, labour, entrepreneurship, finance, protecting the vulnerable, and Tobago tourism.

HOSTING INAUGURAL CARNIVAL

Among the proud moments, Augustine said, was hosting the inaugural Tobago carnival, from October 28-30. He said a survey was done which showed approximately 30,000 people flocked to the island for the festivities.

The returns from the $13 million spent by the THA – from a $17 million budget – surpassed the investment, he said.Despite the bad weather, the carnival received generally good reviews, with optimism about improvements in the future.

The PDP was criticised for not using the help of the National Carnival Commission, instead approaching Grenada to copy elements of its Spice Mas. Tourism secretary Tashia Burris said Tobago was ready to stand on its own and learn to walk.

MORE $$ FOR CEPEP, URP

Despite PNM claims of political victimisation, the PDP insists its restructuring of the URP and Cepep programmes was in Tobago’s best interests.

The restructuring saw a number of firings, but the THA said the programmes were top-heavy.

Newsday reporter Elizabeth Gonzales interviews Chief Secretary Farley Augustine at Shaw Park Complex, Scarbrough. – THA

Secretary of Community Development Terance Baynes said Cepep workers would would receive “all the benefits that they should get and that includes whether it be your leave, your days off and all those things that the average worker should get.”

Augustine said he was proud of the salary increase for URP workers in June.

Another major achievement, he said, was the decision to clear the five-year backlog for cataract surgeries.

FAILURES, LESSONS LEARNT

Augustine admitted the THA did not follow proper protocol in building the $1.7 million carnival stage in the sea at Rockly Bay, Milford Road, Scarborough.

“I think as a team we failed to communicate properly about what we intended to do concerning the development work in Scarborough, which resulted in some extra land that was used as a stage for the carnival…This is one of those pitfalls I’m trying to have the administration avoid going forward.”

THA Secretary of Infrastructure, Quarries and Urban Development Trevor James did not consult the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) on the construction of the stage. And even after the EMA expressed concern, James went ahead.

He told the media, “What we are trying to do is host a carnival in a few weeks…We at the assembly are trying to execute these works in short order, and sometimes as a state agency, we believe it might be challenging to go through every single step that is required. If that has to be done, then we won’t be able to accomplish all that we set out to do.”

Augustine felt there should have been more consultation on the logistics of this project.

“It’s something I spoke perhaps quite hard to the secretary of infrastructure about. I said to him: ‘In this business, you can’t approach it arrogantly at all. In this business, you have to communicate…’”

CRACKS IN PDP, FALLOUT WITH DUKE

In September, a monumental rift between Duke and Augustine threatened to damage the THA administration, but the turmoil was contained and the impact was mainly felt within the PDP.

Duke resigned as deputy chief secretary, but not before stripping Augustine as the party’s deputy.

It started when Duke publicly condemned the THA for abandoning a Tobago folk performance group. Soon afterwards, Augustine moved to have Duke’s position as deputy chief secretary reviewed.

The PDP head has continued to attack Augustine’s leadership, even accusing his administration of corruption.

Augustine has sued his political leader for one such claim involving Trinidad contractors.

However, at a plenary sitting last month, Duke hinted at making amends with his other PDP assemblymen.

Then, on Monday, the entire THA Executive Council resigned from the PDP.

Augustine told Newsday his relationship with Duke remains professional.

“The way the THA is set up, it doesn’t matter what happens in a political party. There could be a fallout in the political party; you could be fired as deputy political leader; you don’t even need to be a member of a party. You could be an independent member of the House and be chief secretary.”

Asked about criticism from political opponents, he said, “In this business, I will never always get it right. I will always need to improve and grow with the job, and I will need to hear that criticism directly from them.

“We must become the greatest little island on the planet. We will not stop pushing and working towards it. We may not be able to achieve all the things we want to across the three years…but at the end of the day, this Tobago will not remain stagnant, as it did for the past 20 years.”

USE OF CONTRACTORS

In June, Augustine said a THA audit unearthed shady activities in the road-repair programme between 2019 and 2021, under the previous administration. He said the THA would only pay the bare minimum until an independent authority determined the true value of the scope of works.

Contractors demanded that the THA clear millions in outstanding money owed to them.

The Prime Minister later accused Augustine of discriminating against Tobago contractors in favour of their Trinidad counterparts. Augustine dismissed these claims and went on to accuse Dr Rowley of “spewing covert racist rhetoric.”

Chief Secretary Farley Augustine, left, talks to Newsday reporter Elizabeth Gonzales at the Shaw Park Complex last week. – THA

Augustine has said the THA will be using the design-build-finance method to drive Tobago’s development. He said the aim is for contractors to finance the entire cost of projects before being paid later down the road.

The THA has to get creative, he said, as the allocation from the government remains insufficient.

RELATIONSHIP WITH TRINIDAD

One of Augustine’s first challenges was dealing with a legal threat from former attorney general Faris Al-Rawi on the legality of Duke’s appointment as deputy chief secretary while he was also head of the Public Services Association.

Augustine and Al-Rawi had a frosty relationship, with the former on record as saying he did not answer to the latter.

Duke later resigned from his role at the PSA.

There were many concerns over how a PDP-led THA and PNM central government would interact.

On election night last December, Augustine warned the Prime Minister that he would not accept any bullying tactics.

“We have rejected your bullying – the bullying is not welcome in Tobago.”

Saying he hoped they could have a cordial relationship, Augustine warned Dr Rowley, “Do not spite Tobago, because the Tobago I know is mighty enough to get rid of you.

“We are willing to work with you to see this island develop.”

Fast-forward a year, despite concerns raised over the sidelining of local contractors in favour of their Trinidadian counterparts, Augustine has been accused of being too cosy with Rowley.

He said being civil does not prevent him from standing up for Tobago when required.

“They think I’m too polite to the Prime Minister. They think I am too polite with those in government.

“Let’s be frank: the same way I call out (Colm) Imbert (Finance Minister) on not giving us all our monies in the budget.”

Augustine was referring to his claim on November 24 that central government has been shorting the THA on its annual allocation since 2016/2017. He said this has amounted to $138 million.

“I will be polite to them and I will call him out when they are doing things that are inimical to the interests of Tobago. I can politely disagree with you. That’s growth, for me.”

‘MASSIVE’ PLANS FOR 2023

Asked how he would sum up the administration’s first year, Augustine said, “It will be a simple word, a four-letter word. Good, G-O-O–D. Good is comparative, not superlative; so good is not best – it’s also not worst. In this context, good means we have done well, we have made some good strides, and we have some good achievements.

“But good means there is also room for improvement. That there can be better, good is an excellent place to start.”

He told Tobago he is motivated to achieve more.

“Good means we are keenly aware of the trajectory we are on and what needs to happen to change the island for the better.

“Good also sums up the feeling. I feel good, the team feels good, Tobago feels good.

“But Tobago feels that there is better to be done, and as we move to another year and forward to 2025, 2026, we will achieve the best.”

While his administration is being heavily criticised for failing to deliver all it promised in the first 100 days, in 2023, Augustine said, his team will be focusing on achieving milestones.

“We came in towards the end of the first quarter of a fiscal year. We inherited other people’s debt, programmes of work, so this is our first year where it’s 100 per cent us in terms of our financial plans for the year.”

By mid-2023, Augustine plans to launch a two-year landmark project that would “change the mentality and enhance the landscape of the island.

He said 2023 was “the year we are going to lay down all our massive, exciting ideas, because we are not going to wait until 2024 for the election.”

Asked if the PDP had set the standard too high, the Parlatuvier/L’Anse Fourmi/Speyside assemblyman said, “Yes, we set the bar extremely high, because Tobago development was way behind. It is like we had not aimed for anything major.

“We aimed for the star, so if we miss it, we still are in the sky. So no, we did not set the bar too high.

“What we did was underestimate the gravity of the amount of mess that has to be cleaned up in this place. We knew there was a mess, but we really underestimated the amount. If I was a petty politician, I would be raising a new issue one after the next, but it’s not productive…”

Because of this, Augustine said, he accepts the reality that his team will not be able to complete the promised agenda by the end of its four-year term.

“While we may not be able to achieve all the things on the mandate, I know we would be able to take the island closer to a place for Tobago to become the greatest little island on the planet.”

By this, he specifically means an improved standard of living for all on the island.

Going forward, Augustine said he expects his administration to make mistakes on the way, but promises his team will publicly admit to any faults and humbly apologise.