Friday, December 15, 2017

Paramountcy of expediency

In politics, good comes mainly from expediency. Thus, the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader produced some positive developments recently. 

Keith Rowley focused on the Parliament. I have been constantly calling for strengthening that institution to make it a fierce watchdog of the people’s interest, monitoring spending by the Cabinet, public service and State enterprises. When therefore President Anthony Carmona suggested last year Parliament start at 8 a.m. on Fridays, I called it “small change” and asked: “How will a few more hours stop our Parliament from being mainly a tool of the Cabinet, ensure that it effectively supervises public expenditure to achieve transparency, accountability and lack of corruption? How will this little extra time empower parliamentary committees with the authority and resources to investigate malfeasance and recommend criminal investigations into possible misconduct in public life? How will it ensure, for the sake of the people, the Government is constitutionally obligated to conduct negotiations with the Parliament on the annual budget, national policies and legislation instead of the ritual of useless ‘debate’ with its hollow posturing, grandstanding and ‘bussing mark’, but with the Government always getting its way?” 

I called for transformation, suggesting “we need a larger Parliament of full-time parliamentarians anchored in genuine separation of powers that gives it dynamism, independence and creativity; a Parliament liberated from the dominance by any one individual, group or handful of financiers”. I pointed out that “for 50 years we have had massive waste, mismanagement and thie­very and our Parliament has done absolutely nothing to stop it. Billions have been wasted or stolen under its very nose. No prime minis­ter, minister or public official has ended behind bars, as they do in countries with real parliaments that keep an eye on the public interest. We need parliamentary committees with power to summon any national to an enquiry and where non-attendance or perjury are offences with jail terms. Instead our impotent and manipulable Parliament facilitates corruption. It should be entombed in ignominy, especially after Section 34, with inscriptions on its slab detailing the massive corruption it allowed from the gas station racket to the Piarco Airport terminal building and continuing. It should be placed in the dustbin of history”. Those are my views, repeatedly expressed, strongly felt.

I was about to give up in despair when lo and behold Keith Rowley said the following: “What is happening is that huge amounts of money are being allocated, spent, wasted or stolen, and there is no proper arrangement in the Parliament to hold people to account, because the Parliament is not functioning as a supervisory body.” He continued that in his estimation, “60 per cent of Government expenditure is wasted or stolen in Trinidad and Tobago” and that we only get value for 40 per cent. He concluded, “we cannot oversee billion-dollar waste and billion-dollar corruption with part-time parliamentarians”. I jumped for joy and even left a message congratulating him, but then realised he had not gone far enough. He had said nothing about the constitutional changes needed for the separation of powers, without which you cannot strengthen the supervisory capacity of Parliament. He did not mention new arrangements for the chairmanship and composition of parliamentary committees which must have subpoena powers. Rowley was merely advocating higher salaries for full-time MPs, but nothing fundamental for empowering Parliament. But the good produced by his expediency is that an aspiring prime minister recognises the inadequacies of the Parliament. I promise to never let him forget his words should he achieve his goal.

Self-interest also produced good when the Prime Minister dismissed two errant ministers as she seeks to clean her stables for 2015. It would have taken nerve. The two ministers were her close political associates, Glenn Ramadharsingh reputed to have played a pivo­tal role in her emergence as leader of the United National Congress. But she had little choice, if she wanted to give her party a chance in 2015. Had these situations surfaced a year ago, Kamla Persad-Bissessar might have tried to weather the storm. 

So expediency was at work here as it does in politics everywhere. Politicians produce good deeds mainly when it profits them. Self-interest drives “serving the people” and the people do benefit, but often at very great cost. Very rarely do politicians truly put the people first. And that is the reason why you hardly ever have great poli­ticians. You have great leaders like Lincoln, Gandhi, Churchill, Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, who were driven by selflessness and genuine caring for their country and countrymen. We had one or two who reached for greatness. Eric Williams certainly was outstanding and would have been more so had he left the nation more united than he found it. But in the world of ordinary politicians, expediency is paramount.

So we have Kamla and Rowley who are regularly high sounding in their public statements on integrity and principled politics. But both must explain why after four years, the parliamentary Joint Select Committee has done nothing on procurement reform, which is critical to dealing with the corruption that steals food from the mouths of the poor and their party members. Had they come together on procurement and campaign financing, we might not have had the First Citizens “share shock”; or the bid-rigging on the billion-dollar wastewater recycling plant; or the 29 suspicious transactions totalling $1.12 billion in 2013 that the financial sector reported. But they didn’t act because while genuine reform of the Parliament, procurement and campaign financing will bring good to the country, it will hurt the fortunes of politicians and their investors. We must therefore continue to wait for expediency before our poli­ticians deliver.

• Ralph Maraj is a playwright and former cabinet minister.