Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Debate showtime at cost of whom?


Mark Fraser

On both sides of the political fence, researchers and strategists can be imagined beavering away, in search of material usable in Friday’s debate of a motion of no confidence in Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. The debate, triggered by Opposition Leader Keith Rowley’s motion, was an unexpected move.

No single major scandal was cited by Dr Rowley as necessitating a suspension of the parliamentary agenda for the urgent purpose of putting the Government on trial for its life. In early 2010, then as opposition leader, Mrs Persad-Bissessar had filed a similar no-confidence motion.

At the time, the air rang with accusations about State sponsorship of a church being built by then-prime minister Patrick Manning’s spiritual adviser. Still hot in the headlines were reports of possible criminal charges against Calder Hart, then a top administration operative, staunchly defended by Mr Manning. Given the respective numbers of the People’s Partnership and PNM MPs, nobody expects the Government of Mrs Persad-Bissessar to lose the debate. Such an outcome could, at least theoretically, precipitate fresh elections. What is accordingly promised for Friday is a rhetorical extravaganza which, the ruling party’s parliamentary ringmasters have determined, must run non-stop from start to finish. The physical and emotional stamina of MPs will be mercilessly tested.

Predictably, Dr Rowley and PNM caucus members will take fullest advantage of parliamentary privilege. Accusations will be launched against the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular. The aim will be to throw them off balance and on the defensive. And to capture the headlines.

This, then, is set to be an “air war”, rather than a ground war likely to result in change to the political landscape. Still, its effects can hardly be dismissed out of hand. Serial sins of commission and omission by the ruling Partnership have sustained the unhappy image of an outfit so incapable of getting things right as not to be trusted in national office. A lot is available for rehashing, as PNM MPs review the Government’s 22-month record. The Opposition party’s researchers will be certain to unearth new causes for concern or outrage. Whether these will prove well founded, the country must wait to see. Meanwhile, the targeted ruling party can expect a hammering in the headlines, in the talk shows, in the blogs…

No doubt, this likelihood has focused the mind of Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar, shortly to be facing UNC internal elections. She has sought to whip her supporters into shape. Her aim over the last weekend has been to avert in advance any impression that hers is somehow a beleaguered administration, so helplessly vulnerable to opposition thrusts as to become destabilised. Friday’s debate will thus also test her leadership capacity, and the depth of her support. T&T will count the political information and entertainment derived on Friday against the expenditure of valuable legislative time. Should the show be found not worth the expense, it is the Opposition which will be held to account.