Sunday, February 25, 2018

How to apologise

 We are not alone. Here is a news item about Mozambique: “Mozambican civil society organisations on 16 June praised President Armando Guebuza for exercising his veto against bills passed by the Assembly of the Republic which would have increased the pension rights and other privileges of former parliamentary deputies (MPs) and former heads of state. After a storm of protest against the two bills, including a street demonstration in Maputo, President Guebuza refused to promulgate the...bills...

“(The) executive director of the Community Radios Forum...told the press (that) ‘the President...knew how to listen and take into consideration the voices of citizens who, individually and collectively, opposed these laws, and showed...that they would be exaggerated and unsustainable.’”

Our Great Pensions Debate continues, however. In his latest contribution to it, Terrence Farrell (Express, July 12) pinpoints and analyses what he calls “two important principles at stake”. These are (a) the “inherent conflict of interest in parliamentarians setting their own remuneration”, and (b) “equity”. (He accuses the government of duplicity, but in my experience at home and abroad duplicity is a characteristic of all administrations—and oppositions.)

I agree with Farrell’s identification of the two principles. But what has bothered me most about the vulgar grab for more money—our money—by the MPs and by some senators, using the retired judges (who need scrutiny themselves) as a front, is the mindset that lies behind the action. Further, there are the implications of that mindset for the society. 

In her now notorious Senate statement of last June 24, Camille Robinson-Regis described as “rats coming out of their holes” persons who had dared to express publicly their dissent from the decision—the unanimous decision, remember—of the Lower House on the pensions matter. (Martin Daly and I were among those persons, so I suppose we could reasonably be presumed to be members of the genus Rattus. The two most common types of this grouping are the rattus rattus, or black rat, and the rattus norvegicus, or brown rat. With rodent status apparently conferred on me, I would unquestionably be a rattus rattus. But where would we place Daly?)

What sort of mindset inspires a parliamentarian, especially one of long standing, to make as offensive a remark as that, to enthusiastic desk-thumping from others in a chamber meant to be a place for mature reflection and not invective? A remark that targets a wide cross-section of the population, cutting across region, religion, socio-economic status, gender, race, etc.? Why this contempt, not only on Robinson-Regis’ part, for people who pay your emoluments, puny though they are felt to be? Will these condescending and insensitive politicians now approach those very people and ask them with a straight face for their vote? No need to answer that.

And what are the broader implications for our democracy? Is it that our self-centred parliamentarians are in essence telling us that whatever they do and say is the altar before which we must without demur prostrate ourselves? Is it that the people of Trinidad and Tobago, having directly or indirectly placed these individuals in Parliament, are not allowed to differ from the actions and decisions of the same individuals? Whose emoluments, I repeat, the people pay? We were told more than 50 years that massa day was done. Are there now new massas and memsahibs among us? If so, of what value are the rights and freedoms enunciated in our Constitution?

It was in early 1995, nearly 20 years ago, that I first wrote about the threat to our institutions. I was speaking then of Patrick Manning’s attack on the Service Commissions—reminiscent of today’s parliamentary siege of the Salaries Review Commission— which he had pronounced a relic of colonialism fully deserving of the garbage bin. I have written several times since on the issue, and again I warn the population: a country without viable institutions is no country worth the name. It is up to us to guard against the creeping subversion of our democracy. We cannot rely on parliamentarians to do it.  

The Mozambique news item also said this: “(The) leader of the Mozambique Democratic Movement (MDM)...admitted that the vote by the MDM parliamentary group in favour of (the) increased (benefits)...was ‘a serious mistake’ and made a public apology.”

That is the kind of public apology I would really like to hear from Mrs Robinson-Regis. But I’m not holding my breath. I might suffocate.