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Raffique Shah


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Focus on substance, not fluff

By Raffique Shah
Mar 18, 2012

Over the past two weeks or so, public attention has focused on two issues, with the concomitant raging debates in the media and online. The first surfaced when it was disclosed in Parliament that the State had met expenses for Prime Minsiter Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s sister to accompany her on official visits to Australia, India and elsewhere. The second pertained to Tobago Affairs Minister Vernella Alleyne-Toppin incurring private expenses on a Government-issued credit card that is intended for use by officials when they travel abroad.

In the midst of war of words that erupted—the PM defending her sister, the minister saying that she made a mistake, party supporters of one hue or other taking adversarial positions—I stood in my sneakers and wondered. While the two matters are important from the perspective of integrity in public life, aren’t there issues of greater public importance that the nation should be concerned about? Why are we focusing on fluff, not on substance?

Only in this country do peripheral issues take precedence over what really matter. It’s not that the Prime Minister’s decision to have her sister as an unpaid chaperone whose expenses are met from state funds might be irregular, even questionable. Or that ‘Shoppin’ Toppin’ has joined the ranks of officials who cannot differentiate between their public lives and private affairs. Really, though, these are side issues that we choose to debate at the national level even as the country burns, quite literally, in instances.

Take the fiery protests across rural Trinidad where roads have deteriorated over decades, becoming impassable in instances. Some time ago, addressing Government’s decision to proceed with the $7 billion Point Fortin highway, I raised the question of priorities. Sure, we need the highway; it has been a project-in-the-making for some 50 years. But is it a priority item at a time when resources are limited and when existing roads, many of them main arteries, fall into serious disrepair?

The wise people in government think not. They are going ahead with the new highway, all of it, not in sections, because they want to have something to boast about when the next elections come around in 2015. Meanwhile, the Moruga Road, a main artery, is falling apart and the affected communities protest for the umpteenth time. The main road in Tabaquite is almost impassable. The Toco-Matelot Road is in a dangerous condition. We can multiply these problem roads by 100 or more, across the length and breadth of the country, and I’m sure other communities would want theirs added to the list.

It is true that the woeful state of these roads (and many bridges) did not crop up overnight. They are the result of decades of neglect by successive governments. Bear in mind that in the 50 years we have been an independent nation, the economy enjoyed several oil and gas booms during which hundreds of billions of dollars were flushed down the hatch like the proverbial dose of salts, as the late Michael Manley crudely but correctly put it.

Imagine in a country with a per capita income of around US$15,000, there are still numerous wooden bridges, relics of underdevelopment during the colonial era, that only the intrepid residents who live beyond them dare to negotiate on a daily basis. That is scandalous. Yet the current Government chooses to spend $7 billion on the Point Fortin highway. Mr Manning, in his oil-windfall-stupor of 2003-2010, opted to spend even more to make the Port of Spain skyline look like New York’s, even as the city’s sidewalks remained hazardous eyesores.

I repeat, for the benefit of those who believe that I am against progress: I have no problem with government building the new highway. I strongly believe, though, it should be done on a phased basis to allow resources to be diverted to existing communities that are under infrastructural stress. I need add that I focus on roads and bridges only because of the fiery protests that erupted over the past few months. I could have chosen the health system in which there are shortages of beds, equipment, medication and staff. Or environmental degradation—a curse that we have lived with as governments pronounce otherwise. I wonder if the board at the Asa Wright Centre had not highlighted the atrocity in their backyard, what might have happened, or not happen.

These are the real issues—economic stagnation, rising unemployment, unbridled crime, woefully inadequate housing, stinking drains, casual flouting of building codes and drainage regulations that bring harm to communities, and more, much more.

So while State funding for the PM’s sister, in the absence of regularising her position, is a concern, I do not think it warrants national debate. It’s a position I held when, during the Carnival season, the PM’s designer boots made the news. These are politicians’ personal choices, and as long as they do not breach any law or convention, let them be. Harking back a bit, none of us could tell Mr Manning that his choice of “prophetess” was right or wrong-that was his call. He defended having the mystery woman as a spiritual adviser. Given the fate that befell him afterwards, I don’t know if he had any regrets.

The current PM will also have to live with the consequences of her actions and choices. What distresses me is the way people have turned relative trivia into a national debate, or more accurately, into a partisan war. Her detractors condemn her every move. For her diehard supporters, she could do no wrong. She has been elevated to deity status, something that Basdeo Panday once enjoyed. Today, Panday is a fallen god who is subjected to derision. Therein lies a lesson for those whom the gods would one day destroy.

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