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Denis Solomon

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UNCouth politics

By Denis Solomon
February 28, 2005

I would be less than honest if I did not admit to heaving a sigh of relief when the UNC was defeated at the 2002 election. I hold no brief for the PNM. But five years of Panday was more than enough, on aesthetic grounds alone.

When the UNC took office in 1995, all the pent-up frustration its previous avatars had accumulated over 30 years in opposition burst out in a flood of vulgarity that stripped from the politics of Trinidad and Tobago whatever slight veneer of civility it had acquired. PNM corruption had been subtle and underhand; UNC graft was open and in-your-face.

The PNM manipulated the media; the UNC beat up reporters in the Mid-Centre Mall. The PNM packed the Service Commissions; the UNC leapfrogged individual favourites over the heads of more qualified candidates and blamed the international donor organisations. Manning locked up the Speaker; Panday insulted the Head of State, and the President of Ghana for good measure.

Under the PNM, debate in Parliament was mere empty reciprocal vituperation: under the UNC, Dhanraj Singh offered to show his "gun" to a female member of the Opposition, and boasted on the floor of the House of his wife's sexual prowess.

Now it is once more in Opposition, the UNC has become even worse. There has never been bipartisanship of any kind in our legislature, but within the limits of political bias, there was some discussion of issues.

Now every issue serves only to whip up blind animosity among UNC adherents, and the discourse is openly racial.

The present controversy about the Chief Justice demanded to be handled with kid gloves by all concerned. Unscrupulous politicking could only diminish the public's already slender confidence in the system of justice.

Yet unscrupulous politicking is all we have had from the UNC. First Wade Mark's accusations of a government conspiracy against the Chief Justice. Then Sat Maharaj's irresponsible threats of race war.

Panday showed himself equally irresponsible not only in the language of his letter to the Prime Minister ("apparent vendetta" and "relentless persistence") but in his enumeration of completely irrelevant High Court judgements "against" the government. His call for "frankness with the public" sat ill on a man who, as Prime Minister, once suppressed the report of an enquiry that he himself had commissioned.

Panday also not only deliberately misinterpreted the Constitution, claiming that it made the Prime Minister "judge, jury and executioner", but in the process maligned the President by calling him the "agent" of the Prime Minister.

Panday either does not know or does not care that this kind of politics inevitably falls prey to the law of diminishing returns. Even when he has everything going for him, Panday spoils his case by dragging in irrelevancies and lapsing into abuse. A case in point is the Anti-Terrorism Bill. This is a very dangerous piece of legislation. There are strong arguments that it severely and unnecessarily limits civil liberties, and that its vagueness makes it a potential weapon against dissent of all kinds.

In the Trinbagonian context there was nothing strange in the spectacle of press freedom being defended by a man who did his best to muzzle the press with his demands for the dismissal of editors, his refusal to sign the Chapultepec Declaration, and his nefarious Green Paper; or in the spectacle of citizens' rights to protest being defended by the man who increased the penalties for "unlawful" assembly in the Summary Offences (Amendment) Act.

But only Panday, in a debate where he had all the good points on his side, would turn it into a cat-fight by talking about putting the law "into the hands of a Government that has shown it is prepared to subvert the Judiciary."

This, mind you, from the man whose Attorney General was the most sedulous subverter of the judiciary in the history of Trinidad and Tobago, a fact confirmed by the prestigious commission he himself appointed to report on the administration of justice.

And like all those who prize abuse over facts, Panday is also ignorant. The Chief Justice controversy has provided him with yet another opportunity to trot out his weary mantra of constitution reform.

The Chief Justice's appointment, he says, should be confirmed by a parliamentary committee. Not only is Panday confusing the mechanism of appointment with that of dismissal, but he doesn't know that in the American system he is lauding, the dismissal of the Chief Justice is theoretically much easier than in ours.

The Americans are dependent on no external Privy Council. The Chief Justice can be impeached by the Senate by a two-thirds majority of those present (not even of the whole Senate).

In fact, a petition is now being circulated by the Democratic National Committee to impeach the Chief Justice and four other Supreme Court judges for having blocked the counting of votes in Florida during the election that gave Bush his first term.

Despite the theoretical ease of the process, the impeachment will not take place.

Why? Because in the American system there is an element that Panday will never understand. Decorum.

Copyright © 2005 Denis Solomon