Lessons in democratic behaviour

Trinidad and Tobago is in the midst of one of those high-octane political periods with which we in Guyana are altogether unfamiliar. There is an energy and earnestness about the politics, a vigour and vibrancy about the discourses that derive from competing points of view. Controversy abounds and political discourse is lively; Trinis are indulging in their familiar proclivity for talking up. They are far less in awe of government than we are; never reluctant to poke their fingers in their government’s eye. If the culture can be intimidating to politicians it is a sign of a healthy democracy.

Political democracy in Trinidad and Tobago is buttressed by media that are far freer than here in Guyana; media that are not only privately owned but freer of dependence on state advertising, which here in Guyana, the government has demonstrated its preparedness to use to curb criticism. In Trinidad and Tobago, therefore, there is a more ingrained watchdog media culture, a greater appetite for ferreting out official indiscretions and, where necessary, putting  government and government officials under manners.

In Trinidad and Tobago too, high officials of government are much more inclined to engage the media, sometimes even without clearance from their political bosses. Not so in Guyana, where the dissemination of state information is subject to both centralization and political censorship. In Trinidad and Tobago there is a mindfulness among politicians of the role that the media must play in giving meaning to the practice of democracy. In Guyana, where reporting is not pleasing to the administration, the media are labelled anti-government.

A year ago the people of Trinidad and Tobago removed the People’s National Movement (PNM) from office, and the coalition government of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar has been finding out that governing a country in which the people insist on holding their government to account can be a source of endless headaches for the political administration.

In May this year the Prime Minister parted company with her highly regarded Planning, Economic, Social Reconstruction and Gender Minister Dr Mary King after she allegedly influenced the award of a website development contract to a company to which her husband has ties. Dr King was stripped of both her ministerial and senatorial positions and subjected to a healthy dose of public ridicule. Trinidad and Tobago’s Attorney General declared that the Prime Minister did the right thing, that a case had in fact been made out against his Cabinet colleague; that she had “acted improperly.”

Here in Guyana such occurrences are entirely unheard of. In fact, there exists at least one glaring case in which a succession of ministerial indiscretions have been overlooked entirely. If Dr King were a member of the PPP/C Cabinet she would probably have survived her alleged indiscretion without a great deal of public fuss.

Dr King found a defender in another Cabinet Minister, Austin ‘Jack’ Warner. She was, said Warner, “incorruptible.” His own troubles were just around the corner. Last week, in the wake of the widely reported corruption scandal Warner, in his own words, had “four-fifths” of his original portfolio removed by the Prime Minister.

In the same week Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar reconfigured her government’s multi-million dollar Unemployment Relief Programme (URP) and when she was asked by the media for a reason she bluntly responded that corruption within the URP had become “very high,”  so high, that she was taking over disbursement of funds for URP projects.

Here in Guyana, hell would probably freeze over before our government concedes “very high” corruption in a state institution. That is not to say that there does not exist at least good reason for corruption-related probes in some state institutions here in Guyana. That, however, is not the way things work in this Republic. Corruption probes are few and far between and little, often nothing of substance ever comes of them. The lack of public confidence in the independence of the judiciary makes matters worse. Ironically, Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar is operating in a far more risky political environment than is the PPP/C administration, what with the presence of a political opposition in Trinidad and Tobago that is both more intrusive and decidedly more aggressive than that which obtains here.

The nature of Trinidad and Tobago’s People’s Partnership coalition (PP) means too that there is a far greater measure of risk in some of the decisions which Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar has made, not least the downsizing of Mr Warner’s portfolio. As Chairman of the United National Congress (UNC), the leading member of the ruling PP, Warner is a potential game-changer in the current coalition arrangement. That is almost certainly the reason why he has not lost his Cabinet portfolio altogether.

At the same time, the Congress of the People (COP) another member of the PP has reportedly let it be known to the Prime Minister that it is far from pleased over the removal of former Energy Minister Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan to the Ministry of Public Administration.

All this is not to say that the political system in Trinidad and Tobago is a paragon of virtue. On the other hand, its political culture reflects a far greater mindfulness of democratic behaviour, more open and accountable government, vibrant political opposition, unfettered public criticism of official indiscretion and free and vigilant media. For all its faults Trinidad and Tobago reminds us in Guyana of what we decidedly are not.

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