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Beware of our Talents

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
February 12, 2017

Last Monday, Dr. Keith Rowley embarked upon a tour to converse with his constituents. Symbolically, he began his conversation in the constituency of his most tone-deaf, most unavailable minister.

Any astute observer of the political scene could have told him that crime, public safety and citizens' distrust of their government are prime concerns. They would have told him that men's cruelty to women has little to do with the choices they make in picking their spouses or the clothes they wear.

Pressed further, they would have voiced what nationals asked at the quarterly meeting at T&T High Commission's Office, London, on February 1: why after 17 months in office, the government has not named a High Commissioner to that important mission; or, more germane, what is our government's position vis--vis the UK's withdrawal from the European Union (EU) and how is it likely to affect us?

I am fascinated by how the British Parliament proceeds with its governance. Last June British citizens voted to leave the EU. Theresa May, the British PM, proceeded to initiate measures to withdraw from the EU (by triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty) without consulting the British Parliament.

Gina Miller, a British citizen of Guyanese origin, challenged the legality of the government's approach. The UK High Court ruled that Mrs. May did not have the power to open negotiations with the EU without parliamentary approval and a vote from MPs. The government took the issue to parliament and won a mandate to proceed.

Following Parliament's decision, the government published a document, "The United Kingdom's Exit from and New Partnership with the European Union" which sets out 12 principles that will guide the government's withdrawal from the EU. There is a foreword by the PM and a preface by the secretary of state.

Principle 12, "Delivering a smooth, orderly exit from the EU," is one page long. It reads in part: "It is, however, in no one's interests for there to be a cliff-edge for business or a threat to stability, as we change from our existing relationship to new partnership with the EU... We believe that a phased process of implementation, in which the UK, the EU institutions and Member States prepare for the new arrangements that will exist between us, will be in our mutual interest."

In other words, as it withdraws from the EU, the British government produced a substantial document-about 77 pages-that told its citizen how it plans to undertake this important task. It also provided examples of dispute resolutions that arose from other international agreements that went sour.

Not so with our government. Crime and the citizen's fear of their safety are the most important issues in the country. Our PM has told us we do not need to have a written plan to fight crime or improve citizen's safety although he is also angry at the high level of crime.

This raises a fundamental question: upon what basis should Dr. Rowley conduct his citizens' discussion and what are the likely outcomes?

To yield any substantive results from such conversations there must be a shared understanding of what one wants to achieve, usually encoded in a document that states the government's approach to the problem; how it intends to proceed; and its proposed goals.

Such a document allows citizens to understand how they are supposed to participate in solving the problem; the actions they can take; how those actions are to be coordinated with the authorities, and so on. You may call this A PLAN OF ACTION. Everybody, including the criminal, will know what it is.

Our government does not proceed that way. There was a government retreat a few weeks ago. We are still to learn about its effectiveness and its outcomes. Were preparatory papers distributed prior to the discussion and did a document emanate subsequently from that exercise?

The country needs a short reader-friendly document that outlines the government's plans on crime. It should inform us what the government hopes to achieve; how citizens can assist in the process; and the projected outcomes?

Dr. Rowley and his admirers glorify in his ability to speak off the cuff. That got him into trouble on Monday. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen, warns "After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you-that is a hazard."

Dr. Rowley may be in danger of overusing a talent which can be an asset in some circumstances. It can be disastrous when it is used cavalierly to conduct national affairs.

There is no substitute for a well thought-out document in which one discusses issues such as crime and other matters concerning our national wellbeing. Such a document has the advantage of allowing citizens to ruminate, reflect and immerse themselves in the many-sided problems that affect our national wellbeing. It is only under these circumstances can citizens offer the government their best advice.

Incidentally not one of the MPs lined up in front of the audience had a pen or paper. I wonder what they learned from the exercise?

Professor Cudjoe's email address is scudjoe@wellesley.edu. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.

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