Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Reality of Perception

At the first sitting of Parliament after its Ceremonial Opening, Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar, in outlining her case for the rejection of Neal Parker as Commissioner of Police of Trinidad and Tobago, stated that justice must not only be done, but must also be seen to be done. She is, of course, quite right in that statement, although it can also be successfully argued that justice must also be blind, whether or not it may be popular.

It is highly ironic, therefore, that no more than ten days after that statement was uttered, that Mrs. Persad Bissessar would choose to appoint Minister of Works and Transport Mr. Jack Warner (UNC) as Acting Prime Minister. In keeping with her statement that justice must be seen to be done, the logical choice for the position of Acting Prime Minister should be the leader of the Congress of the People, Minsiter of Finance Mr. Winston Dookeran.

The reasons are clear. Firstly, Mrs. Persad Bissessar is Prime Minister on the basis of her party entering a coalition with other entities in the recently concluded General Election. The People’s Partership is essentially an amalgamation of the United National Congress, the Congress of the People and the Tobago Organisation of the People. The leadership council comprises Mrs. Persad Bissessar, Mr. Dookeran, Mr. Errol McLeod (MSJ), Mr. Makandal Daaga (NJAC) and Mr. Ashworth Jack (TOP). Only Persad Bissessar and Dookeran command any significant support in Parliament. It should therefore follow that the Acting Prime Minister should, on the basis of honouring the spirit of the coalition, be appointed from the leadership council.

For those who point out that the UNC overwhelms the COP 20-6 in terms of seats won, look no further than the United Kingdom, whose own elections, held a mere 18 days before ours, produced a hung Parliament. After forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, PM David Cameron appointed Mr. Nick Clegg, leader of the Lib Dems, as deputy Prime Minister, despite holding a margin of 320-54 in terms of seats in Parliament. This is a direct result of recognising the importance of the minority party’s role in the formation of the government and granting due respect to its supporters. It is the preservation of the perception of unity within the coalition.

Secondly, there arises the issue of the criteria for the selection of the Acting Prime Minister. The first criterion proferred was by the Attorney General, Mr. Anand Ramlogan (UNC). At the post cabinet news conference where Mr. Warner’s appointment was announced, Ramlogan sought to justify the appointment by stating that Warner, with over 18,000 votes, received the most votes by any single Member of Parliament in the recently concluded election. What Ramlogan conveniently overlooked was that Dookeran led a party that received over 100,000 votes. Who, therefore, has a greater mandate? Who is more justified in holding the position of Acting Prime Minister? Mr. Warner holds a major post in his own party as chairman and financier. However, in terms of the coalition itself, Mr. Warner is merely a Member of Parliament.

The other criterion offered was by the Minister of Sport, Mr. Anil Roberts (COP), who congratulated Persad Bissssar for appointing the Acting Prime Minister from amongst the elected members of the House of Representatives. This is a departure from her immediate predecessors who chose their deputies from the appointed Senate. One wonders, how, of her 28 members to choose, she arrived at the appointment of Mr Warner. Indeed, if the sole criterion is that the Acting PM should be a member of the House, it makes even MP #12 on the PNM bench, Mr. Manning, eligible for selection.

Finally, this entire issue boils down to perception. And this is where things are beginning to climax to a critical point for Persad Bissessar. The perception exists and is being perpetuated, that the UNC has simply used the COP to obtain government, and now, with a seemingly comfortable majority, counting the MSJ (1) and TOP (2), they are prepared to throw their major partner by the wayside, much like a rehashing of the NAR in the 1995-2000 administration. This again reared its head in the allocation of seats for the Local Government election, where the COP was initially, and obscenely, offered only 32 of the 134 local seats to contest; and in such an arrangement that they would be unable to obtain majority control of a single corporation. This, despite the COP’s stellar showing in the Diego Martin, Tunapuna, Arima, Point Fortin and San Fernando regions at the last General Election. This perception is reinforced with her appointment of Garvin Nicholas (UNC) as Press Secretary (essentially Minister of Information), despite her pronouncement that no unelected candidate would be handed a ministry. The People’s Partnership rode the wave of popularity into office by promising change. This is certainly not the change that people voted for when there is a continuation of bending of rules and redefining the meaning of ‘is’ in order to achieve a personal or political end. Where is the principle behind this appointment?

The crowning jewel in this increasing fiasco is the widely held perception that Persad Bissessar is merely a puppet to Warner. Dr. Rowley made mention of it in his campaign. Mr. Panday (B) has spoken ad nauseaum about it and now, with this appointment, and with one fell swoop, Persad Bissessar has confirmed in the minds of many that she is not acting appropriately in either of two ways: (i) independently as Prime Minister or (ii) in consultation with the other members of the Partnership Council.

This issue, ultimately, is not about Mr. Warner personally. Persad-Bissessar is the Prime Minister and, constitutionally, it is her prerogative to appoint whomever she wishes as Acting Prime Minister. However, she assumed that office by promising a leadership style that was divergent from the dictatorial and arrogant tendencies of her predecessors. She has just appointed a person to act as Prime Minister who was embroiled, rightly or not, in a great deal of controversy with respect to his dual portfolios as Cabinet Minister and Vice President of FIFA. Were the shoe on the other foot, I am quite sure much clamouring would be made by her about the arrogance of a Prime Minister to foister onto the population, a man who may not even be ethically grounded in holding his post as a Minister of Government.

Persad Bissessar must ensure that the decisions she takes are within the realm of acceptability by the majority of the people whom she asked support of a mere 5 weeks ago. Had Dookeran accompanied her on her trip to Jamaica as part of the governmental team, the issue would not have arisen. However, it must be a bitter pill for him, his party and his supporters to swallow, when come Thursday, he must sit at a Cabinet meeting chaired by Mr. Warner. And all for what? To feed the egos of a few and to protect their party from some imagined threat by another member of the Partnership? We are 41 days into this new government and already the foundation of confidence that many placed in this alliance has begun to waver.

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