The Public's Right to Know
By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 20, 2019
Almost invariably citizens elect a government with the expectation that it will act in their best interest. You allow them (the members of government) to go along their merry way with the tacit assumption that they realize their primary function is to serve rather than to be served; to listen and to respond rather than to impose and to dictate.
Then you wake up one morning and find you have installed a monarchy whose fancies and fantasies take precedence over the rights and freedom of ordinary citizens who are never ordinary in any serious sense of the term. It's almost as though the monarchy thinks we have been asleep for the past three and one-half years, unaware of their faux pas and their fumbling. Since we have not rioted (as Colm Imbert once observed), they believe that everything must be ok.
How else can we explain the proposed amendment to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) trotted out in the dark of night, without any previous discussion among the citizenry, that seeks to deny the public's access to information on the ground that limiting such access would save us millions of dollars.
Even as our monarchs seek to save us millions of dollars (Faris Al-Rawi's rationale for amending the original bill), they simultaneously offer "hefty increases in pensions for prime ministers, judges and parliamentarians with no proper rationalizations" as Kamla Persad-Bissessar suggests (Express, June 11, 2019).
Quick access to public information is the lynchpin around which any democracy revolves. Limiting our access to such information or having us wait six months (subsequently reduced to 30 days) to get such information flies in the face of commonsense. On Monday, Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, the former AG who brought forward the original bill, explained the effects of the proposed amendment on ordinary citizens.
He says it can affect "a public officer who has been a victim of unequal treatment and wants access to employment records, a retiree who applied for Government pension but has been treated unfairly in his or her application and needs information to file a claim against the Government department, [or] a member of the media investigating the misconduct, abuse of process or official corruption at a Government department" (Express, June 11).
In the United States of America where attempts are made to empower its people and to respect their right to know, their FOIA provides public access to the records of federal agencies, with certain exceptions, within twenty working days.
The benefits of such access are clear: "Journalists, scholars, and the public have used FOIA to investigate a variety of news stories and historical events. These discoveries have often brought about critical changes to many aspects of public life" (FOIA Wiki). The same is true in Trinidad and T&T.
The PNM, as I argued recently, has allowed the moneyed elements to take over the party as it simultaneously bastardizes its historical achievements and devaluates the intellectual currency of its members. Ferdie Ferreira's Political Encounters (a must-read for any PNM member) helps us to understand the folly of PNM's position with regard to the FOIA amendment and the Pension Bill.
Ferdie refers to the intellectual rigor that undergirded PNM's early years. He says Dr. Williams' "library was his Holy Sanctuary which he guarded like Spanish gold. In my many, many years of relations with him I never got the impression that money was an attraction to him. If it were, I never saw it displayed."
He also warned about Williams' "Hubris Syndrome," a condition in which the leader believed he was more important than the party and the measure of all things. He also spoke about Dr. Williams' cunning when he "plunged the party into utter confusion" when he resigned from the party. The late Everton Smith of San Fernando had in his possession the letter that Dr. Williams penned that called for his reinstatement into the party.
On March 23, 1980, Fergie warned: "This is one of the major problems in both the PNM and the Government. Too many people in and out of the PNM are dependent on Dr. Williams and the generosity of the Government. The present system has made it impossible for free, frank and independent discussion in the party [and in Government]."
How can a party that presumes to speak for the ordinary people misread the sentiments of those they are elected to serve? When do members of the party speak out against the party, and by extension, Government excesses?
Why are Government members so afraid of their leader?
Might it be that the PNM has lost its raison d'etre, its self-critical edge, or has forgotten from whence cometh its strength.
Is it that no party or Government member has the testicular fortitude to tell the leadership it has taken the wrong road and that it should "tun' back now before it's too late." It is losing its mass appeal in the process.
Every party member should read Ferdie's Political Encounters, a bodacious account of the party's early history and his political integrity. It will help party and Government members to understand the political treachery inherent in staying silent as the party flounders and loses its relevance to its people.
It has been ten years since the members of the US Congress have gotten "even a cost of living increase." It is not that they do not want a raise, but they are afraid/aware of "the political optics" of their action. (New York Times, June 12). That's how political democracies, as opposed to monarchies, divinely ordained, operate.
PNM can learn much from this political distinction.
Professor Cudjoe's email address is email@example.com. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.
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The Slave Master of Trinidad by Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe