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Offside in Brazil

By Sunity Maharaj

 Yet again, the Prime Minister has invoked the right to privacy to shield her actions from the public’s right to know. In response, a public unaccustomed to holding power to account, and uncertain about the line between private and public, has swallowed its anxieties about abuse of power and escaped into picong, masking its impotence under a revengeful humour: “The woman gone and blight Brazil, boy!”

Our lack of clarity on precisely what was wrong about the Prime Minister’s statement on the eve of leaving for World Cup Brazil with her grandson, offers a revealing insight into our general inexperience in managing power. Stumped by her assertion that “not one cent of Government’s money” was being used for the “private visit” to Brazil, few could articulate the precise discomfort swirling deep in the gut. Compounding our confusion was her strategy of payment without prejudice.

In opening up the public purse to the Soca Warriors of 2006, the Government made something akin to a private decision to settle a court-ordered debt out of court and without effect on future proceedings in court.

In the context of such generosity to the beloved Soca Warriors, quibbling over grandmotherly and Government gift-giving would seem almost churlish. That is, until the emotional gloss is stripped to the core issues of influence-peddling and mismanagement of public funds. 

Right from the beginning, the Persad-Bissessar administration has sought to side-step public scrutiny on such expenditure as overseas travel, government-distributed hampers and celebratory events by explaining them away as being paid for by private money without identifying the source of funds.  The implied suggestion of an impenetrable wall between private money and the actions of public officeholders, describes nothing but a fool’s reality.

All over the world, the commingling of private money and public office routinely subverts good governance. It is at the heart of influence-peddling by public officeholders who trade the power of their office for gifts through actions defined as corrupt. Especially in the context of ongoing public concerns about the power of political financiers over her Government, it is not enough for the Prime Minister to say “not one cent of Government’s money” funded her “private visit” to Brazil. 

When it comes to financing the activities of high office-holders and their families, the public has a right to know who is footing the bill and not be left to assume who is paying her way. This matter is at the heart of integrity in office. The information is neither irrelevant nor private. It is a requirement of good and transparent government and properly within the scope of the public’s right to know and should not be left to suppositions by defensive minions.

Even as the PM enjoys her World Cup trip, her expedient payment of US$1.3 million (TT$8.4 million) to the Soca Warriors is already opening up a can of questions, fuelled by public distrust and a lack of clarity.

 In an interview with Lasana Liburd’s wired868.com online site, not even Michael Towley, the British attorney representing the player-beneficiaries of the Prime Minister’s largesse, could contain his astonishment over her action: “That the (Prime Minister) can effectively say we are going to spend a few million dollars on the players because it will make me feel good.”

That couldn’t happen in the UK; or certainly not that quickly without a parliamentary debate about it. But that is not to say it couldn’t happen like that in other places. 

“Other places”, one supposes, refers to those banana republics where a prime minister, having ignored the footballers’ pleas for almost four years, could simply wake up one morning and seize $8.4 million of taxpayers’ money to cover a ratchifee decision designed to blunt public criticism of a World Cup joyride.

Right there, in a nutshell, is the real difference between Westminster government and the West Indian variant of Westminster: public accountability.

Declaring that if he were a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago or even a football fan he would be “pissed off at this”, Towley said the Prime Minister’s action has precipitated a “messy situation because, essentially, someone else has paid (Jack) Warner’s debt and he is off the hook again”.

Almost one week after making those comments, Towley might be even more confused. As it turns out, no one knows for sure the precise implications of a decision made in the true spirit of prime ministerial vye-kie-vye. The players’ position seems to be evolving by the day, moving from gratitude, to an insistence on keeping the money and pursuing legal action to recover the US$1.3 million owed by the TTFA, to offering to return the money to the Government-once paid by the TTFA. The denouement could well be unpredictable with the candle costing more than the funeral.

While the Warriors strategise their way forward in collecting the promised sum, the rest of the society is left to deal with the larger issue of securing the defences around the treasury. Especially in this campaign season of spending to the max, the priority must be on protecting the treasury against prime ministerial whimsy and government abuse of power. 

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