As I sat to listen to President Carmona's inaugural speech on Monday night, I wondered whether I would be able to go the full distance. So much was wrong with the governance of the country. The People's Partnership government had not only failed, signally, to inspire; they had soured and depressed, relentlessly, the mood of most of the population. And so I found myself cynical before the speech of the new president. But when he began to speak, I found myself becoming riveted. Hey, this fella was impressing me! Yes, he was actually inspiring me. And he was driving back my cynicism. The vibes were good; he was evoking good emotions in me.
I will tell you immediately that, when I reflected on the experience, I came to the conclusion that I felt as I did because of the deliberate use of contrast. The new president had succeeded in contrasting himself with both the government of the day and the outgoing president. In contrast to the former, he projected hope, sensitivity, and an optimistic realism. In contrast to the latter, he was fast-talking, passionate, poetic, and more real.
He started off on a realistic note, giving the proper perspective on the abundance of goodwill he had been receiving: "Goodwill can be nebulous and so can dissipate if expectations are not realised or not realised expeditiously.'' Now, he may not have had the current government in mind—who knows? —but we all know that they have squandered a great deal of the goodwill the electorate lavished on them at the start, and he was signalling that he did not want to go down that pathway.
Next, he dealt with his powers as president. He was pragmatic about it: he didn't have powers that the population thought he had, but then again, he had powers we didn't think he had. And so, his office would not be impotent. As an index of his powers, he expressly pointed to Section 81 of the Constitution and its mandate to the prime minister to "keep the President fully informed of the general conduct of the government and, at the President's request, to submit information with respect to any matter relating thereto.''
Now, he hasn't said how he would respond if the prime minister failed in her duty here, but he was quick to inform us that, just as he had done as judge, he would uphold the Constitution and the Law and devote himself to the service and well-being of the people "without compromise or reservation, holding fast to the following fundamentals: integrity, transparency, inclusiveness, and reverence to God Almighty.'' Note the power of juxtaposition, folks. Anthony Carmona could turn out to be a president not to be trifled with.
Next, he talked about the need for constitutional reform, noting with admirable realism "the need to revisit the principles and precedents by which we are currently governed, to unravel the sense of disconnect that the average person has to the issue of governance.'' In that last statement of need, in particular, the president has shown he understands the fundamental problem bedevilling our democracy—the disconnection of the people from the process of government after the vote.
This is a problem the current government in particular cuddles and promotes since it believes, as Mrs Persad-Bissessar trumpeted on the first anniversary of her government, that the electors and supporters must faithfully follow their government leaders. She and her cabinet will lead, and we must follow.
Unfortunately, Mr Carmona did not show us how to break this disconnect, preferring to offer a diluted discourse on the "mandate'' of his presidency to "infuse new life into the watchwords: Discipline, Production, Tolerance.''
In that discourse, in his treatment of tolerance, comes one of the most beautiful passages in his speech; I quote it in full:
"The man child is in crisis; and we cannot and must not trivialise the sanctity of human life by indifferently dismissing the deaths of these young persons as 'gang-related'. We adopt the offensive philosophical position that they will eventually all be killed, not recognising that every murder is revenged, and revenge is a race that will never end unless there is genuine intervention. We as a nation, we the Parliament of the people, must no longer engage in tired politics on this issue. Waffle abounds. What is needed is a truly collaborative effort among the stakeholders to address the crisis that is crime. I say this because I know that, with the appropriate support, these young persons are fully capable of acting in a responsible manner; fully capable of being accountable.''
This man projects hope that a good and lasting solution—based on stakeholder collaboration, belief in the potential goodness of besieged young people, and "thinking outside the box''—will be found for crime. And note the contrast between his attitude and that of the minister of national security and the rest of the cabinet. The latter is driven by brute force, heavy-handedness, and a lack of compassion as evidenced by the desire to recruit 5,000 SRPs and precept (hundreds of) soldiers —who, we are told, are not earning their keep—to help the police do their work.
President Carmona gave three examples of his more humane solution already in action. He would go on to metaphorise Trinidad and Tobago as a ship that has for many years "left its safe moorings of integrity, accountability, responsibility, transparency, and inclusiveness'', and he would advise that "real change must be invoked'' if we want to "establish a better, more progressive, more humane society.'' Real change. I am inspired to hope that he will have much more to say about the mechanics of this, and I wouldn't like to experience any dissipation of my goodwill in this regard…
One more thing. I also liked some of the seemingly little things —putting the children first in some of his salutations; citing the Czech wordsmith and president Vaclav Havel, the philosopher Aristotle, and Pope John Paul II; invoking the contribution of five villages to his development… .
Continue to walk good, Mr President.
• Winford James is a UWI lecturer and political analyst