The pieces of legislation recently passed unanimously in the House in respect of the retirement benefits of legislators and judges helped to clinch for me how the Persad-Bissessar administration can perhaps best be characterised. We saw it before with the Indictable Offences legislation which produced section 34 (also passed unanimously) and its early proclamation; we are seeing it again with the Cybercrime bill. The Interception of Communications legislation was soon followed by the appointment of Reshmi Ramnarine to head the SIA.
The characterisation that comes to mind is perversion of principle. The behaviour of the administration in all these instances is to use perfectly acceptable principle — the need to redress the pensions of judges, the need to compensate parliamentarians properly, the need to abolish preliminary inquiries and speed up criminal justice, and so on — and to pervert these laudable goals with provisions which are simply obscene.
The case for significantly improving the salaries of parliamentarians going forward is strong and the Salaries Review Commission, like the other service commissions except the JLSC, is a constitutional dinosaur and slow to act to boot! But there is no good case for redefining pensionable emoluments to include allowances and there is no good case for the retrospective application of this legislation. What about the public servants similarly placed? What precedent does this now set? What will be the result if employees and their unions now seek to redefine ‘pensionable emoluments’ in negotiations with private sector companies? Why not make a reasonable ex gratia adjustment to those affected like retired judges and other similarly placed, and quickly fix the problem of base salaries going forward! Two wrongs do not make a right! And the PNM Opposition has again been caught, as with section 34, supporting this perversity!
But I can do no better than our calypsonians in characterising this kind of conduct. Two metaphors which I can recall were particularly striking. One metaphor referred to the government as a “coral snake”. As we all should know, the coral snake is one of two deadly snakes found here in Trinidad. Unlike the fearsome mapepire, it has the special characteristic that it is small and its colours are pretty, sometimes causing children attracted by its colours and bead-like appearance, to pick it up to their detriment. The calypsonian (Kurt Allen) was suggesting that this government is wont to offer blandishments and pretty gifts to the unsuspecting and naive, but these “gifts” are deadly to its recipients.
The other was the use of the saying: “pissing on my head and calling it rain”, cousin to the more familiar saying: “pissing on my head from a height!” In the context of the discourse in the particular calypso, the metaphor speaks to a feeling that the government is treating the population with undisguised contempt! But like the coral snake metaphor, it also suggests that the recipients of the contemptuous sprinkling are naive and can be fooled into thinking the malodorous effluent is nothing but a pleasant passing shower. The calypsonian, Alana Sinnette-Khan, clad in heavy rain coat and boots, was certainly not about to be fooled!
Surely our politicians will fool us from time to time. But we do not like to be taken for fools - naive, unsuspecting, suborned by pacotille and seduced by bread and circuses! However, the evidence is there. Section 34 was carefully gift-wrapped in an otherwise worthy piece of legislation. But its deadly provision was inserted in Senate committee at the eleventh hour, and its early proclamation left some parliamentarians in both houses looking foolish. In the run up to the THA elections, Tobago was seduced with the promise of internal self government with a Constitution Amendment bill introduced a mere week before the THA election. Although self government has strong support in the sister isle, the canny Tobagonians didn’t bite, and the bill was buried. Those of us who think it is high time for the CCJ to be our final appellate court were excited by the prospect until the actual nature of the proposal was revealed to be a half-picked duck which was in any event a non-starter under the treaty. No bold thunder shower to sweep away the Privy Council, just piss! The leak of the Flying Squad report caught the government with its pants down, probably as it prepared to deliver another delightful “rain shower”.
I think the calypsonians certainly got it right with the use of these two powerful metaphors. If we continue to be taken for fools, taken in by public relations and taken in by perversion disguised under principle, the shame will be on us!
Dr Terrence Farrell is a former deputy Central Bank governor and former chief executive of One Caribbean Media Ltd, parent company of the Trinidad Express Newspapers.
Sunity Maharaj’s column returns next week