July 11, 2004
By Raffique Shah
Since the television clip of Prime Minister Patrick Manning defending his wife as Education Minister was shown repeatedly all of last week, I couldn't help but hear and see the PM captured on camera casting innuendoes at a previous, unnamed Education Minister. It was not, in my view, an indiscretion for which he should apologise to anyone, although I myself would not have attacked the person in the parliamentary chamber. Those who might recall my five years in the House will know I took on ministers, opposition opportunists, and even the revered Speaker Arnold Thomasos, outside the chamber.
In fact, as a parliamentarian, I was no saint so I am not about to cast stones at those I consider sinners. I need add that during that period, when I was young and very volatile, I was able to put my Sandhurst training as an officer and gentleman to use. So although my colleagues and I attacked the PNM and Panday's faction of the ULF with venom, I never once hurled abuse at women. Hafezzar Khan had stayed with Panday, but not once was she attacked for that. I am sure Hafeezar will attest to the fact that while Kelvin Ramnath, Nizam Mohammed and Panday got more than their share verbal assaults, the women who stayed with Panday were not targeted, by members of my faction of the ULF.
I thought it necessary to refer to that period in Parliament when our behaviour was not exactly kosher. It was a period of intense turmoil, and the hostility between the two ULF factions often spilled over into the House. In fact, it was during one such fracas that the late Dr. Eric Williams, when Paul Harrison (also deceased) accused Panday of holding secret meetings with the PM, interjected: "Tell them when you come by me you get only the best scotch!" Williams was a provocateur par excellence. But on that occasion he did not bargain for Harrison's tart tongue, and he ended up running out of the Chamber.
The behaviour of many parliamentarians (and senators) today, though, makes us look like choir boys of yesteryear. They make the proverbial fish market environment smell like roses. Witness Ramnath, a political flyweight by any standard using Parliament as if he were in a village rum shop. Or Robin Montano's boorish behaviour which he obviously believes is the only way for him to attract attention. And Panday is not a stranger to hurling verbal missiles at enemies perceived or real. This is not to say that there are not PNM MPs who sometimes abuse parliamentary privilege. But members of the UNC seem to have a licence to misbehave in the House and Senate.
Which brings me back to the PM's remarks that have become a national issue? Although he did not name the "previous education Minister" one could easily identify the person to whom the remarks were directed. If that person was totally innocent of the charges made, an appeal could have been made to the Speaker to have the PM withdraw his remarks. No such request was made. But later, at public meetings, the UNC chose to identify one of its female parliamentarians, and sought to make it a gender issue. Manning, they claim, was wrong to defend his wife, and wrong to attack one of theirs, more so a woman.
They must really suffer with amnesia or they are too dam boldface, as we Trinis say. Was this woman not the person who stood on a public platform and spoke of "Ganga's pipe" and "Mr. Bissessar's pipe"? And she expects to be treated like a Maha Lakshmi today? Please – gimme a break! I have long maintained that if one wants to be above reproach, more so someone who leads a public life, that person must be an exemplar must be without sin. In this regard, the lady in question has little standing. "Mr. Bissessar's pipe" notwithstanding.
Panday too never held back when it came to vitriol from a platform, and many objects of his attacks were women. Have they forgotten the placard one current sitting MP held up to George Weekes' face at Piarco during the ULF split" Maybe the "hard drives" in their brains also erased the incident in the House in which Ramnath referred to a female MP as a "slut"! Or how Panday and his minions so abused Hulsie Bhagan that she, who once defended "the Bas" the way some of his minions now do, retreated from public life?
So when they get a taste of their own medicine, they cry foul. What of the numerous ordinary citizens of numerous crimes, they have dragged people's names in the mud. But because of this archaic law that grants immunity to some of the worst scum of the society who pass for parliamentarians, and the supposed sanctity of a chamber that's often turned into a whorehouse, the victims can do them nothing. I suppose one of these days when some aggrieved individual take matters into his hands and beats the sh*t out of one of these cowards, there may be calls of Parliamentary reform, not only police reform! Then, too, we shall see who will support what Bill.
In Manning's case, he chose his wife as a member of his Cabinet, and for that he has been assailed from many quarters, the most vociferous being the opposition. As Prime Minister, Manning had the right to do what he did, although many may still question his wisdom in so doing. And having made her a public figure, he must have expected her to be subjected to public scrutiny and political attacks. But he broke no law, just as Panday broke no law when he selected six losing candidates in a particular election to be made senators. When the then President Robinson wavered on the issue, Panday attacked him with full fury. In the end he got what he wanted.
While, therefore, the PM might have come across as being unduly harsh on the person he trained his guns on, he did no worse than what the UNC members are accustomed to doing. It's not that I approve of such attacks, since I view women as non-combatants in whatever public arena we choose to fight our battles. But when a woman portrays herself into a "battleaxe" – and I am not saying the subject of this latest controversy can be so dubbed – one in your face some day. Oh, for some decorum in the not-so hallowed chamber of Parliament.