The People’s National Movement has perfected the art of political distraction and during this Christmas season demonstrated how easily it is to change the national conversation.
The party and one of its deputy leaders were feeling intense political heat over allegations of corruption stemming from a $375,000 cheque written to a non-existent foundation twelve days before the 2010 general election.
The story grew legs when it turned out that an audit at the Ministry of Community Development (under the Manning Administration) revealed allegations of questionable payments to a close associate of then Minister Marlene McDonald. This associate also happened to be one of the directors of the Calabar Foundation that received that $375,000 cheque three months before the foundation was registered.
The audit also revealed that over $2.7 million was issued to another close associate of the Minister for work to be done on three community centres; work which was never done.
The PNM and McDonald blamed the disclosures on a disgruntled party member who failed to secure the nomination for the Port of Spain South constituency, which the party handed back to the incumbent, Marlene McDonald. It was clear that the party and the leadership were mired in political quicksand and there was no way out because they had no defence.
Christmas provided the way out and the PNM enlisted their allies to go after the Prime Minister in order to change the conversation and focus on what was mostly a non-event. But when you have friends in the right places who understand how to manipulate information, you can make a small flicker into a blazing inferno.
The first line of attack was money for the churches. This was nothing new; the Prime Minister has been doing it all through her term in office. With oil prices down, the argument was the country could not afford it although she was at pains to explain that there was no imminent economic crisis. The messaging shifted to the toys that she was giving out to children all over the country. Again, this was nothing new. It happened in each year with private donors buying the toys and gifts. That too didn’t get traction because it was having a boomerang effect with people seeing the PNM as the personification of the Grinch. The McDonald story was still around and Christmas was days away.
That’s when they took focus on the Prime Minister extending Christmas greetings to the nation through a billboard in a public space. They not only made a fuss about the message, but were also shouting about the cost.
The issue then as it is now was the same; what is wrong with a Prime Minister wishing citizens a Merry Christmas using a billboard as her channel of communication? One argument is that no PM before her did that. Well for the records, no PM before her ever introduced a Children’s Life Fund; none was as innovative and proactive in instituting change. So that makes these things wrong? Why the fuss for doing something different for the benefit of citizens?
It’s because we cannot accept that things could change or be different. Suppose instead of a billboard she had mailed a Christmas card to every address in the country? The cost might have been four or five times the investment on the billboard and I would bet that no one would have had a word of criticism.
But the PNM did a fine job of pushing the McDonald story aside and creating a distraction, in effect taking a molehill and making a mountain out of it. So many of us were quick to join that bogus conversation instead of asking serious questions about allegations of corruption involving a former government minister who has refused to deal with the substantive issues and presents herself as a victim.
The PM wanted to say Merry Christmas to the nation and chose the most cost effective way to send the message. We should be commending her instead of finding fault. She wanted to present gifts and toys to the children and the needy in keeping with her own style. In the spirit of the season she gave to the churches the same way she has given to other religious institutions to celebrate their special events.
The only thing wrong about all of it was that the PNM needed to change the subject and since it was Christmas, they chose the PM as a target.
It is time for the PNM to start talking about real issues and explaining what really happened with Marlene McDonald if it wants to convince the electorate that it is fit to govern.
Distractions are no substitute for integrity and accountability.