Saturday, December 16, 2017

Reflections on the no-confidence debate

The People’s Partnership Government (PP) collectively took the position that the debate on the no-confidence motion was frivolous and vexations and a colossal waste of time, including parliamentary time. I would argue that just the reverse was the case, viz, that the motion was evidence, if we needed it, that we live in a democratic society which has respect for the principle of executive transparency and accountability to the sovereign people.

There was some speculation that the motion would backfire, and that the net gainer would be Kamla and the PP. In the absence of validating polls, I am not sure that any of these assertions can be validated. My own view, for what it is worth, is that both leaders and the parties for which they spoke, gained some ground. It was not a zero-sum game.

My argument with those who saw the whole event as a waste of time is that no time is ever favourable or convenient to a government which is about to be comprehensively scrutinised since one never really knows what bombs lie at the bottom of the pond. Governing parties thus have reason to be anxious to attempt to devalue due diligence exercises.

But there are other reasons why it is important for us to have these “grand remonstrances” ever so often, perhaps every two years. They could serve as virtual alternative to a “recall “ of non performing MPs which is a clumsy political instrument. Ruling elites rarely ever want to account to Parliament unless they are forced to. They take “immunity” as a god- given bequest, and seek ways to avoid scrutiny. They all do it.

And what of the debate itself? The PNM, predictably, was outgunned. Some of their shots were blanks. But given the fact that they were outnumbered, they held their own reasonably well. The PP benefitted from the fact that they could refer to Manning’s sorry record on some issues, and blame the PNM as whole for that record, as they were entitled to do.

Jack Warner was a realist in his assessment of what was taking place. He tried to go beyond the rhetoric and the praise singing to deconstruct what was happening. He made two interesting comments, one about Rowley and the other about Kamla. He was of the view that Rowley was still haunted by Manning’s shadow and that the no-confidence motion was informed by the presence of Manning’s ghost. As he mused, the timing of the motion was “linked to the absence of Manning. In two months time, Mr Manning [will be] back, and when he is back, the gulf in the PNM will get wider.”

Rowley was accused of “weakening the PNM’s chances of returning to power.” He opined that Rowley had pushed the PNM further back.

“He has no moral authority; he has been living in the shadow of the member for San Fernando East .”

There are in fact many who believe–as I do–that up to the time of his illness, Manning was still eyeing the PNM leadership as the prize which he still hoped to re-win. Was Mr Warner also keeping his eye on more than one ball? The question may now be however. In any case, I doubt that Jack would be welcomed in the PNM if he were to be rejected by the UNC on March 24.

Perhaps the more interesting comment which the “at risk” Warner made involved his relationship with Kamla. Warner, who has been seen in or around the UNC dog house for quite awhile and who openly complained that he was being squeezed out by the UNC “cabal,” made an open plea for a rapprochement with Kamla. As he said, “many feel I am treated badly, and they are worried about it. Forming a party is [however] not in the cards. I am going to stay within the UNC. The best way is to transform the party from within.”

He was however quite open in his assessment that he needed to make a deal with Kamla. “My mission is not completed. I cannot do it on the sidelines. I must be on the inside and able to perform.” To perform, he needed Kamla’s blessing, as did all the others. “All of us have an investment in Mrs Persad-Bissessar and her future and where she is, “Till death do us part.” Panday may however be right when he mused that in politics, one must always expect disloyalty.

There is little question that Kamla was the overall winner of the beauty pageant, and that she has consolidated her hold on the coalition and the UNC. Quite apart from the fact that she had 29 seats to the PNM’s 11 and the power of incumbency, she also had the benefit of a “gender dividend”. It is however not enough to have such a dividend. The question to be determined is whether given the particular environment, it is being used creatively. One must not only possess what has been called “erotic capital”. One must also know when and how to use it in the boardroom and elsewhere. There are many women executives whose gender derived capital is squandered, misused, or allowed to lie inert. Kamla seems better able to play the gender card even better than does “Sister P” of Jamaica.

When she puts her two hands up and says, “I am clean and have nothing to hide,” and yet another on her chest and proclaims to all and sundry that she is “pure” and has “no fear of being blackmailed,” that is pure theatre which some find credible. There are however many, who, like the editor of Newsday, feel otherwise, and complain that they are being manipulated by a “femme fatale”, someone who is “adept at charming expediency”.

Now that Kamla is unequivocally our maximum leader, perhaps in spite of herself, many will ask hard questions about her role and her performance style. Is she genuinely post-racial? Is she authoritarian or consensual in her decision- making style? Is she a matriarch in a skirt and blouse? Is she a “hands-on” CEO or a shirker? Does she make the hard decisions, or does she merely take advice? She says she is “not afraid,” and that she is strong. Is this a pose or is it real? When did she start being strong? Does the fact that she is the head of a coalition affect the way she governs, or is she a Westminster Prime Minister pure and simple? She says she will not tolerate corruption in her Government, and that if it is ever discovered, she will deal with it “with the full force of the law”.

How does she plan to deal with errant ministers and board members on whom she depends? How many strikes is an official allowed before he is fired? Is using the law to deal with corruption any different from the advice given by another leader that accusers should take allegations to the proverbial “police”? One is also curious about how she plans to deal with decisions that merely smell of corruption? Does one merely reprimand the potentially errant minister or does one fire them as she did Mary King? All these questions were on the table during the debate. I have no answers to any of them. All I can say is that Kamla is an interesting political personality and that she should not be surprised or thin-skinned if, as is the case with political leaders who have charisma, opinions are sharply divided.