January 3, 2001
By Raffique Shah
MAYBE President Robinson’s contemptuous treatment of the official opening of Parliament on Friday was precisely what its members and many of its specially invited guests deserved. I could see the expressions on their faces—ministers in their Saville Row suits, wives in an array of dresses ranging from haute to gauche, and their guests equally bedecked for the occasion—when Mr Robinson did his number on them.
Most media commentators deemed the President’s cryptic speech an anti-climax, given the fireworks they had expected following weeks of post-election drama. I thought it was a fitting climax to a degradation of Parliament that was brought about by a group of Philistines that has, for some time now, subjected almost every institution of the State to a kind of political devaluation we have never before experienced. Indeed, it was the President himself who spelt out the decline of morals and ethics in governance in his address to the nation one week earlier.
In refusing to appoint seven defeated candidates as Senators on the advice of Prime Minister Basdeo Panday, Mr Robinson alluded to the cavalier treatment of the office of the Prime Minister by the incumbent. In one instance, Senator Lindsay Gillette, who had been appointed a senator mere weeks before the PM made one of his myriad trips abroad, was named to fill this all-important office.
Shortly thereafter, when he left for a weekend of golf in Miami (I believe), the PM directed the President to swear in neophyte politician Dr Daphne Phillips as his replacement. This is not to suggest that either Mr Gillette or Dr Phillips does not qualify for holding the position. But even the much vilified WICBC is more circumspect in appointing captains of the West Indies cricket team, or, for that matter, Jack Warner in selecting the coaching staff for the national football squad.
The Panday Government has also made a mockery of the judiciary and caused the population to look at Chief Justice Michael de la Bastide as if he were some kind of bogey man. It has waged a protracted war against the media, beating sections of this vital institution into submission to its will while certain journalists, taking the easy way out, sold their souls for bottles of Scottish “babash”, whatever its colour.
Its final act of perversion was to attempt to co-opt the presidency in its bid to bend the Constitution to suit its fancy. As I have written before, we are fortunate to have someone of the calibre of Mr Robinson in that office, a man who, whatever his faults, has shown time and again that he is courageous. Since I was “missing in action” during that critical week of confrontation between the PM and the President (apologies to readers) I did not get an opportunity to comment on Mr Panday’s bid to have seven defeated candidates enter Parliament via the back door—meaning the Senate.
What I find most disconcerting about this latest act of madness on the part of Mr Panday is the blanket support he is getting from the ranks of his own party activists. It is one thing for attorneys who are aligned to the party to plead the letter of the law: when the matter of whether or not Mr Winston Peters and Mr William Chaitan qualified as candidates came up a few weeks ago, they (the attorneys) argued that the spirit of the law so allowed them.
Now, faced with a president who is doing exactly that—acting in accord with the spirit of the Constitution, the same attorneys are arguing that he must stick to its letter.
That’s okay for attorneys. After all, they are paid big bucks for twisting the law every which way. But what about the party faithful? Do they not see that Mr Panday has all but abandoned those who helped build the UNC over the years in favour of a handful of opportunists? Let me relate a story that puts this in perspective. It was February 18, 1975, when one of the biggest crowds to date assembled at Skinner Park to give birth to what would later become the United Labour Front and signal Mr Panday’s entry into politics. We had gathered from as early as 10 a.m., meaning to carry the rally for the entire day.
Even with a phalanx of speakers on the platform-George Weekes, Joe Young, Panday, myself, and a host of other trade union leaders and activists—by mid-afternoon we were running out of steam. Sitting on the tray of the truck that served as our platform I spied Michael Als and Russel “Slim” Andalcio, two fellow-activists from 1970, in the crowd, and I decided to ask them to “come and say something”. I approached them and made my request. Do you know what Als replied? “Raf, I not in dat kind ah politics! I cyah speak on de same platform with dem fellas!” I suspected then the main “fella” who kept him away was Panday.
I mean, there we were, rallying workers and farmers in a just cause, but communist Als (yes, that was another reason for him declining to speak) refused to join with us.
When the ULF contested the 1976 election, he and his bunch were nowhere around. In fact, he went on to form his own communist party (PPM), and as late as in 1986 contested the election as a separate entity (the entire party polled 796 votes!). It was only later, in an opportunistic move, he immersed his PPM into the UNC—and presto, we had the likes of Wade Mark and Vincent Cabrera joining with “dem fellas”.
Which is why I cannot understand how party activists are allowing Mr Panday to sacrifice the slim majority the party holds in Government for Als and others like him. Too, when I watch Jennifer Jones-Kernahan sacrifice her once-proud record of revolutionary principles on the altar of upward mobility in a party that is little different to the PNM of the O’Halloran days, I feel like puking.
So when President Robinson decided to shun them all last Friday, I was highly amused. If the UNC Government wants to play political games with the Constitution and the electorate, then who is the President not to “play” as well? Out of evil, it is said, cometh good. One can only hope that this exercise in political gimmickry that we are being subjected to will prompt the population to seize the time, to take politics to where it really belongs—in their hands.
Copyright © Raffique Shah