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Raffique Shah


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Lost in a political wilderness

October 15, 2006
By Raffique Shah

I was tickled pink when I heard of the fiasco that terminated the Budget debate in the House last Monday. No, I was not happy that most opposition MPs did not get the opportunity to speak, to literally dissect Finance Minister Patrick Manning's presentation, to alert the public to its deficiencies. What the abrupt end reminded me of was a similar situation back in the late 1970s when I was an MP and Dr Eric Williams was Minister of Finance. Eric had a peculiar sense of humour that he enjoyed mostly at the expense of those who opposed him, whether they were PNM "dropouts" or members of opposition parties.

At the time the PNM controlled 24 seats, the ULF ten and the DAC two. This meant that government MPs outnumbered the opposition by two-to-one. We thought it fair that two government MPs should speak for every one opposition MP who spoke. The PNM did not buy that and I'll explain why. If they did, the debate would have proceeded "manos a manos", as Trinis would say, with the opposition being able to respond to almost everything raised by ministers and backbenchers of the PNM. But if we went one-on-one, the opposition would have exhausted all our speakers, giving the remaining PNMites free rein to say anything without debate or rebuttal.

So there came a point in the debate when yet another opposition member had spoken and we decided to attempt to force the PNM to debate fairly. That meant none of us sought to "catch the eye" of the Speaker, then Arnold Thomasos, who, as independent as he made himself out to be, was known to be partisan to the PNM and loyal to Eric. Thomasos spent two minutes or so looking in our direction, then in the direction of the PNM. Unlike Barry Sinanan in this case, he did not ask if anyone else wanted to speak. Eric, sensing a moment of triumph and fun at our expense, sprung to his feet. "Mr Speaker," he said, "I beg to move!" End of debate!

Of course there was cussing and shouting from our side, which created much amusement on the PNM benches. But nothing could be done to retrieve the situation, and those among us who had not spoken had to pack away our notes and wait for some other time to raise the points we had intended to discuss. Last Monday's fiasco was not quite the same, but it was similar. This time it was precipitated by the unholy war within the ranks of the opposition. It had little to do with equity in debating, although I heard Hamza Rafeeq say he did ask Ken Valley to match Government speakers with opposition, but Valley bluntly refused.

Valley-and his PNM colleagues-would argue that the opposition had no right or means to dictate how the debate was conducted. That to me is unfair, certainly not in keeping with the spirit of democracy. But I should add that members of Winston Dookeran's COP have accused Rafeeq and the UNC of similar arrogance. Rafeeq's reply was, like Valley's, and before that Kamal Mohammed's (in the case mentioned above), a minority party cannot dictate to a majority. In other words, COP, which had planned a 1-2-2-1 format to run over four days of debate, was in no position to dictate the pace of the debate to the UNC.

While in our time we could laugh at ourselves for being "caught napping" by Eric and Thomasos, the current opposition members cannot laugh, they can only cry. And they must blame themselves for what happened. I did not follow either the Budget presentation or the debate closely. For me, it's a case of the same crap, different year. And more "tatah" from the opposition. Take the Opposition Leader's claim that pensioners must now "live on $3 a day". I don't know that a pension of $1,250 (far too small, I maintain) divided by 30 gives you three. But politicians have mathematics of their own, like morality, I guess.

In Dookeran's case, he immediately jumped on the "casino bandwagon". Does he really believe these establishments are good for the people, for the country? In other words, is he saying that COP backs unbridled gambling, that should he come to power he would create a Las Vegas? Really, I expected Dookeran to have more sense, to address issues that are of greater interest to the populace. But since pensioners do not have the strength or means to protest the injustices perpetrated on them by successive governments, theirs is not a popular cause. Casino owners have the "donsai", so they mobilised and Dookeran responded.

His action reeks of opportunism. If that's how he intends to pave his road to power, I fear we are still looking for "new politics". Indeed, the Budget and the truncated debate tell me that as a nation, we are lost in a political wilderness.