Dr Winford James

A sideshow? Nothing more?

By Winford James
March 08, 2012

In the end, as in the beginning, Keith Rowley's motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister was a sideshow. It failed as it was bound to. It unified the executive and brought out their full armoury. It unified the Opposition and brought out some kind of offence. It won Dr Rowley a small political advantage and probably much more embarrassment. It gave the executive a golden opportunity to keep in the public consciousness the PNM's "corruption, waste and inefficiency". It unleashed, one more time, the executive's politics of excess.

But it distracted us from...what?

A sideshow is, according to one of my dictionaries, "a minor or diverting incident or issue, esp. one that distracts attention from something more important".What is this more important thing that the motion distracted attention from? It's got to be something the executive was doing, but what? They were governing in the default sense of prosecuting office — political office in Parliament and administrative office outside — but what were they doing that stands out as being more important?

Implementing some important programme somewhere in the country? Ah, perhaps. And it would have to be some of those numerous small things that Mrs Persad-Bissessar keeps boasting are indices of the good things constituting her governance of the country. But such small things don't hold our attention, do they? Largely because the news media do not focus on them constantly, and so a sideshow cannot in any sense be distracting, can it?

Perhaps it is the turning of the sod for construction of our first Children's Hospital and start-up works on the Point Fortin Highway? Now these would be more important things, I grant, but they took place as scheduled so it does not seem the motion distracted either the executive's attention or ours from them.

Is it the Clico calamity? Is it the Commissioner of Police conundrum? These are very important matters, with each so incredible in the facts they keep disclosing that it would be almost impossible to dislodge them from our attention. And, in any case, the executive branch seems to be leaving its resolution up to the Commission of Enquiry and the Policy Service Commission, respectively, both of which they were critical in setting up in the first place.

Is it the host of actions different ministers take that are quiet and invisible to both the media and the general public, some of which are driven by a political motive so strong that no sideshow can distract the executive from them?

Is it the making of some important law in Parliament? On the death penalty? On the protection of children from adult abuse that Verna St Rose Greaves laments? Yes, these are more important matters in the circumstances and, indubitably, the stuff of real governance.

Dr Rowley's motion had the potential of being a "more important" matter once it was bolstered by a strong case of impropriety, irresponsibility and dangerous judgment on the part of PM Persad-Bissessar. But the case I heard was disappointingly weak. It focused on Reshmi's change of name as a cynical and duplicitous ruse on the part of the executive to employ her at all cost despite the disaster of her appointment as head of a national security service when she was woefully under-qualified. I should have heard dates, duties, salary relative to that employment, and seen documentary evidence of performance of her duties (Freedom of Information Act, remember?)... except her new job was of such an advisory nature that it did not require documented duties — one of those ghost innovations that the PNM knows so much about.

In the end, it was an entirely deniable charge, with Mrs Persad-Bissessar and Dr Tim Gopeesingh rising to the occasion and not hesitating to disavow any knowledge of what was being claimed and any employment of the lady. And in the end, it was left up to the press or some other independent entity to go digging. And it was left up to us — unfairly, in my view — to figure out whether Dr Rowley's basis was a serious enough one for moving such a motion.

But the executive took the motion seriously while at the same time regarding it as "frivolous, vexatious, and time-wasting". They rallied the tribe in three meetings (Chaguanas, Penal and Diamond Vale) at great effort and expense. They highlighted the unity of their partnership, with representatives from each partner foregrounded by being the main speakers at the gatherings. They got thousands to throng the Parliament on motion day. They brought out every MP to speak and vote in the Parliament. And, with great relish, they crucified the PNM with evidence of the latter's corruption, waste and treachery when they were in office.

It was a brilliant counter-offensive, but it was excessive, suspiciously panic-driven. They had the numbers. They had evidence to damn PNM credibility. They had lots of time left in office. So why pull out all the stops?

Had they done things, in the invisibility of ministerial prerogative, that they might have to protect against with the fires of partner unity and captive tribal support? Did they have to kill a fly with Thor's hammer?

So the fateful motion is over and done, and we will set about assessing in our different ways what we learnt from the debate and how we may have benefitted. Dr Rowley claims that one benefit for the PNM is that the government has been put on notice about a number of concerns. Is that it? Nothing about an alternative legislative agenda?

Nothing "more important"? Are we capable only of staging sideshows?

Winford James is a UWI lecturer and political analyst

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