May 05, 2002
By Raffique Shah
ON what basis, I asked my critic, do you want me to "condemn and attack" Prime Minister Patrick Manning "the way I used to slam (Basdeo) Panday"? It's a refrain I've grown accustomed to since last December when President Arthur Robinson named Manning Prime Minister over Panday, both men having agreed to allow the President to "select" one of them for the office. "Shah, you were rough on Panday, but you soft on Manning," many UNC supporters-and sycophants-keep saying.
They conveniently forget that during the post-elections impasse, I had written that President Robinson should drag his feet in appointing a PM just to prove that politicians were not indispensable, that the public service, the protective services and a responsible citizenry were quite capable of running the country. Was that being supportive of Manning? Or that when the PM was about to appoint a serving military officer as Minister of National Security, I was the first to write and warn him about interfering with the command structure in the army.
I sense they want me to join with them in dubbing the PM a "dummy", a label that has been ascribed to him-not without some justification, I should add-based on certain curious actions he has taken during his tenure as political leader of the PNM. If I remained silent on what so many deemed a cardinal sin-Manning's appointment of his wife as Education Minister-it's because I see nothing wrong with that. For not only is Hazel Manning as qualified as any of her predecessors to hold such portfolio, but she has been a frontline PNM member ever since her husband became leader of the party. It wasn't as if husband Patrick was plucking her from behind the kitchen stove to elevate her to a position she did not deserve.
It was better for him to make her a minister, hence ensure that she earned a living, rather than have her live like Imelda Marcos did, at the expense of the state, only because she was the first-or-second-lady. I guess if Hazel were to choose to sport diamonds aplenty and haute couture clothes, at least we could say that she worked for them. I doubt she will, though, since she does not come across as someone who will flaunt her wife-of-the-PM status on every occasion.
Those who criticise her appointment purely on the basis that she is the PM's wife forget that Indira Gandhi earned her way to the top of India's Congress party by being a strong party activist and not because she was Jawarharlal Nehru's daughter. Or that Rajiv Gandhi crossed similar hurdles before he took his mother's place. And now his wife Sonia has followed suit by dint of hard work and identifying with her late husband and the party. In fact, upon Rajiv's assassination, the majority of Congress MPs demanded that Sonia lead the party. And right next door in Guyana, Janet Jagan sat beside her husband Cheddi for many years until she succeeded him when he died.
If I have a problem with Manning, it's with the size of his Cabinet. Not the size, really, but the fact that he chose to have such a big Cabinet in the face of an 18-18 electoral tie. Had he won the elections by a clear majority, he could have justified the appointment of 30 or even 40 persons as ministers. But with the tie, he should have been more circumspect, knowing that he will have to call fresh elections within one year. Maybe his reasoning for breaking up ministries, hence limiting the responsibilities of each minister, is the way to go. But I am not convinced.
As for the hefty salary increases the new government implemented for ministers, frankly, I think that's much ado about nothing. I have long held the view that all MPs should be paid decent salaries and be made full time representatives, thereby allowing them no excuse not to serve the people who elected them. And $25,000 a month for a Prime Minister is peanuts when compared with CEOs in the public sector raking in $40,000 a month, and many in the private sector earning up to $100,000 a month in salaries and allowances.
People whose visions are blinkered by party fanaticism conveniently forget that the Salaries Review Commission had recommended the increases sometime back. Panday went to Parliament to have the increases sanctioned by the full House, but the PNM refused to support him. What Manning said then was that Panday did not need to bring the matter before Parliament since all it took to implement the recommendations was Cabinet approval. Panday failed to act because it took guts to face the flak that was sure to follow. Manning decided to bite the bullet. So what's Panday's grouse now? Is it that he disagrees with the increases or that he would not have implemented them had he been named PM?
Having explained my rationale for not attacking Manning just for the sake of appearing to be objective, let me say that the latter's decision to waive passport requirements for citizens of the US entering Trinidad and Tobago, is an insult to Caricom citizens and an indictment against all Caricom governments. I would wager a bet that the free-entry move would not have any significant effect in bringing more US tourists to this country. And to the limited extent that it does, the Americans who might be attracted by the "hassle-free" offer would not be able to afford the Riviera prices that Tobago's top hotels charge.
In the meantime, Caricom citizens are given the short end of the inter-island travel-stick. Sometimes they are subjected to the "big stick", as was the case in Antigua recently when a Barbadian journalist was booted out of the island for no good reason. And in Barbados, most Trinidadian are treated like criminals by that country's Immigration and Customs officials. Likewise, our airport officials treat Guyanese citizens like so much cow dung. There should be no such courtesies extended to Americans until that country makes it less strenuous for our citizens to obtain visas to enter the US.
Let me say this: if or when Manning does nonsense, he would feel the sharp end of my pen much the way all his predecessors have. But I shall not bow to the blinkered in society who, purely on the basis of partisanship, demand that I attack the man. Nobody, not Prime Minister, not President, and certainly not two-bit party fanatics, will dictate to this columnist what I should write.
Copyright © Raffique Shah