By Garfield Higgins
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” — Mark Twain
I have made no secret of my tremendous admiration for the strength, stick-to-itiveness and political foresight of the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Kamla Persad-Bissessar. Since she started her sojourn as prime minister in May of 2010, she has demonstrated that she has little tolerance for corruption and incompetence, especially among her Cabinet ministers. Persad-Bissessar has resisted the temptation to turn a blind eye to misdeeds in order to secure political loyalty; this is a characteristic seldom seen in Caribbean political leaders. The political culture of seeing the beam in the eye of political opponents, particularly when they have State power, but ignoring one’s own political cataracts when power changes hands is one of the greatest hindrances to economic and political development in the region.
Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar’s actions since taking office in May 2010 are testimony to the fact that she leads and does so from the front. She is not a Shaggy, Scooby-Doo Type Leader. As I have said before in this space, “Leaders who are afraid to make decisions, because of uninformed fear, rabid political opportunism, self-aggrandisement, corruption of conscience, political Angina Pectoris, or unwillingness to be unpopular are the scourge of the earth.”
In a story in the Jamaica Observer on March 26, 2014, entitled ‘Record 11 ministers fired from Trinidad’s Government’, the clearest indication of Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar’s ‘statesmanship’ or, if you want to be politically correct, ‘stateswomanship’, was illustrated in the following details:
“Out of the 11 people fired, four were axed in response to specific allegations. In May 2011, Mary King became the first minister to be dismissed in this Government, following allegations of conflict of interest in the award of a contract. Next in line was minister in the Ministry of National Security Collin Partap in August 2012, following allegations that he refused to take a breathalyser test after leaving a nightclub. One month later, then Justice Minister Herbert Volney was given the boot for allegedly misleading the Cabinet over the Section 34 fiasco.
“Now Ramadharsingh has been dismissed as minister of the people and social development. Sources said yesterday there were calls for Ramadharsingh to resign his Caroni Central seat in the Parliament as well, a seat which the UNC has never lost and is therefore considered very winnable for that party.
“Apart from having a specific infraction levelled at them, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar has also fired ministers for apparent non-performance. In these instances she gave the vague reason of Cabinet reorganisation. In June 2011, Subhas Panday, minister in the National Security Ministry, was relieved of his portfolio in the first Cabinet reshuffle, along with Therese Baptiste-Cornelis and Nan Ramgoolam. They were all senators and were replaced by Devant Maharaj, Verna St Rose-Greaves and Nicole Dyer Griffith (who was a parliamentary secretary).
“By the next reshuffle in June 2012, St Rose-Greaves was out, along with John Sandy and Dyer Griffith. In came Jamal Mohammed and Marlene Coudray. Mohammed’s appointment was, however, short-lived. He was fired in September 2013 and replaced by Gerry Hadeed. In September 2012, when Volney was fired, Christlyn Moore was appointed. Moore’s appointment was terminated in September 2013 when Gary Griffith was appointed national security minister. Griffith replaced Jack Warner, who had resigned in April of that year and was temporarily replaced by Emmanuel George.”
I have said in this space that in Mrs Persad-Bissessar, “we have a leader who is not worried about leaving a legacy of election victories as her major accomplishment, but is much more concerned about the kind of country she will bequeath to her children, grandchildren, and the people of Trinidad and Tobago. Evidently Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar is not dwarfed by realpolitik that is influenced by a process of what I call “regional political osmosis”. She has shunned the description that P J Patterson attached to Jamaica’s politics — “a fight for scarce benefits and spoils carried on by hostile tribes which seem to be perpetually at war”.
Her most recent project to inspire foundational changes to the constitution of Trinidad and Tobago again recommends her as a leader of tremendous grit. For those who would want to go off on a tangent to say that she is only trying to preserve her own political fortunes, please be guided that the recommendations for constitutional changes are not her personal wishes. As veteran Caribbean journalist Rickey Singh points out: “The draft legislation, which coincides with arrangements to celebrate the country’s 52nd anniversary of Independence on August 31, is based on wide-ranging recommendations from a team of consultants, among them lawyers and constitutional experts.” (Jamaica Observer, August 10, 2014). Doubtless they would have had exhaustive consultations with the people; hence the lack of widespread support for demonstrations at the Red House [T&T’s Parliament] on Monday of last week — possibly organised by the main Opposition People’s National Movement and other political interests. Mrs Persad-Bissessar is evidently not on a personal frolic
Some of the proposed changes are music to my ears, among these term limits for the prime minister and parliamentarians. The professional/career politician is the scourge of Caribbean party politics. Many of the politicians across the Caribbean have never owned or operated a business, developed a project from scratch and single-handedly or otherwise burnt the midnight oil to make it succeed, taken calculated risks with their own money, or made revolutionary changes in their own lives to ensure that they stave off bankruptcy. Indeed, too many of the people we have in party politics in the Caribbean have never succeeded at anything except winning State power.
Why would anyone who believes in true democracy not support term limits for prime ministers and parliamentarians? The only explanation I can think of is that they suffer from a Methuselah-like political complex. These are often the politicians who have the most ruinous effect on the Caribbean. They hang on to power like ticks on cows, like parasites in the intestinal tract.
A ten-year term limit, as is being proposed for the T&T Constitution, is the perfect deterrent to our lifelong politicians. Indeed, any prime minister and/or parliamentarian who cannot operationalise his/her objectives for his/her country and/or constituency within ten years is simply a freeloader who does not want to do an honest, hard day’s work for an honest day’s pay. These are the dinosaur-types that we desperately need to rid ourselves of in the region. As to the argument that the regional states are small and cannot put such limits upon those who serve at the highest political levels, I say pure, unadulterated rubbish. The fact that we are small states is even more reason to have small governments and term limits for all politicians, since it is one of the surest ways to curb the natural proclivity, especially of non-achievers, to situate themselves as kings, barons and knights in the absence of the practice of Westminster traditions.
Mrs Persad-Bissessar, as quoted in the Trinidad Guardian, was spot on when she said: “We’re of the view [that] fossilised leadership, which entrenches itself via manipulation and control of party politics, is an anathema to the principles of democracy and growth. We’ve had our fair share of leaders who continued to rule and refused to give way, even though it was obvious that the time for change had come. This can suffocate new talent and stifle a democracy. Some 91 countries worldwide have term limits of two terms for their heads of government. We’re seeking to become country number 92 with term limits for the prime minister.”
I put it a bit stronger. Regional politics must cease being a refuge for non-achievers, scamps and those who suffer with Importance Deficit Syndromes. So bring on the term limits.
Fixed election dates? It is a no-brainer. Why should one man/woman be allowed to walk around and boast that “only I and I man know the date when the trumpet shall sound?” This is pure nonsense, which only feeds self-aggrandisement. The political sword of domiciles, which most Caribbean Prime Ministers have been given to decide the date of an election, must be destroyed. Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar, as quoted in the Trinidad Guardian, encapsulates the common sense of a fixed election date: “It is therefore proposed that the life of a Parliament should ordinarily be fixed at five years. This will effectively fix the date for the holding of general elections. Gone would be the days of silly boasts and taunts about leaders ‘having the date in their back pocket’. This provides clarity for the population at large, and enhances the ability to participate in our democratic life; for all will know the electoral timetable.”
The decision to introduce several changes to its Parliament’s rules, including a 30-minute prime ministerial Question Time on the second sitting of every month, can augur well for democracy. Additionally, all statements by ministers now have to be submitted to the Speaker in advance of their delivery to Parliament. These statements are limited to 10 minutes and must be on government policy. Their new Standing Orders make provision for urgent questions requiring just an hour’s notice, as compared to the 28-day notice period which previously applied to all ministerial questions. Previously, all speakers had a total of 75 minutes, but the new limit is 30 minutes, with an extension of 15 minutes. Jamaica’s Sectoral Debates and general parliamentary procedures would benefit greatly from some of these advances.
The right to recall non-performing MPs outside a national election is another constitutional amendment being proposed that also makes eminent sense. Why should constituents be saddled with politicians for five years who demonstrate measurable failure to put physical and social infrastructure in place to make the vast majority of their constituents lives overtly better? Such politicians are but leeches on the taxpayers. The right of recall would force politicians to represent their constituents with real vigour and purpose, instead of being peons of their political party leaders and his/her agenda.
Another significant provision is for a “run-off” poll in any constituency where contestants — from parties or as independents — fail to secure more than 50 per cent of valid votes. Admittedly, given the ethnic make-up of the twin-island state, and the tendency for people in T&T to vote along ethnic lines, this will be difficult to establish in a practical sense.
Jamaica would do well, nonetheless, to pay serious attention to the pace-setting Constitutional [Amendment] Bill 2014, being debated in T&T. While former prime ministers Bruce Golding and P J Patterson spoke about foundational constitutional changes for Jamaica, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar is doing it for Trinidad and Tobago… big difference, big, big difference.
Look for the aftershocks in the region.
Courtesy Jamaica Observer