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‘Rats’ vs drones of democracy

By Lennox Grant

 As the bandwagon rapidly filled with people rushing to defend against the plunder of the State apprehended in the bipartisan pensions bills, I kept my cool. I took no particular offence when the People’s National Movement (PNM) Senator Camille Robinson-Regis characterised tormentors opposing the two bills: “This legislation has elicited quite a lot of acrimony in our society. It has resulted in some rats coming out of their holes.” 

In my own housekeeping experience, cockroaches have always threatened a plague worse than rats ever did. Since the senator spoke, however, I have come to understand that rats reliably excite revulsion more lively than I had known for snakes, or even for mangy dogs.    

Now, it appears to me that offence over “rats” was taken without interrogation of exactly what Senator Robinson-Regis might have meant. My guess: she was blasting betrayal. She had expected support from the people who were instead reviling the pension provisions in terms such as “obscene”. 

 History famously records Winston Churchill’s use of “rat” as a verb, meaning to change political sides: “Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat.”

Just possibly, then, the senator was expressing the disappointment of a resurgent PNM sensibility. The party, offering itself as newly remodelled, readied, and rendered respectable, felt entitled to the benefit of the doubt. Even when, as tactic, or on principle, such as with the pension bills, it makes common cause with the enemy normally recognised in the ruling Partnership.

The interpretation that a detestable outing of “rats” had stirred her sense of a betrayal of trust was what only I imagined. It was borne out by little actually found in responses from people who felt themselves insulted for having been characterised as formerly furtive rodents ventured into the light of day.

Somehow, in the rambunctiously free market of T&T rhetoric, a line had been crossed, and an example of excess identified. Ms Robinson-Regis allowed that she had misspoken herself, even by measure of the free expression privileged inside the Parliament.

 It’s inside this rhetorical free market that the lady advertises herself as a provider of goods and services.  “I am very good at the English language,” she said, while conceding that her “rats” metaphor “was probably inelegant”. At first, then, she was conceding a spoken-word stumble, unbecoming of the Port of Spain Anglican convent-girl’s upbringing in linguistic seemliness. By last week Tuesday, she presented herself in full retreat: “I am sorry. I again ask for forgiveness. It was never my intention to cause pain or disturbance to the equilibrium of so many people.” 

It was a compelling bob-and-weave occasion for the typically free-swinging Camille Robinson-Regis. As a PNM crowd cheered last April, she had derided as fearsome a streetfighter as Anil Roberts as a “soft man”. 

Nothing much came of that. Her Senate floor apology last week, however, inevitably recalled a showing seven years before, when she was an MP and Planning Minister.  

Patrick Manning was then also Finance Minister. Somehow, Finance Ministry records detailing her (unapproved) use of an official credit card for personal goods and services in New York came into the hands of MP Ganga Singh. 

After the episode gained headlines such as “The Big Swipe”, Minister Robinson-Regis rose in the House, but chose not to rely on her spoken-word ability. “I wish to be as absolutely clinical, pristine and communicative as possible,” she read from a statement. “I misinterpreted the nature of the use of the card and for that I apologise most profoundly.”

That 2007 confession-apology affair marked the beginning of the end of the Robinson-Regis parliamentary and ministerial career under Manning rule. In time, her vaunted language skills were reserved for diplomatic exchanges, engaged as safely far away as Ottawa, Canada. 

By 2010, she was available for the team of Manning dissenters and discards then being recruited by Keith Rowley. On that front line, Dr Rowley would find use also for Manning-rejected Fitzgerald Hinds, infamous for his historically evocative 2002 cussing of the UNC as a “recalcitrant minority”.  

Dr Rowley reckoned the value of Mr Hinds for his spoken-word facility. “Vote Hinds for Better Minds”, said a giant poster left standing at Morvant junction. It would be from Fitzgerald Hinds that the leader would derive the benefit of exposure of the “Rowley-too-black” sentiment reputed to be alive and well inside the PNM and elsewhere. 

The Rowley team thus reserves place for rhetorical hard-hitters of the kind T&T politics cannot do without. Dr Rowley himself heaved a knockout punch, calling the first Larry Howai budget the “worst ever”. 

Past master of the practice, Basdeo Panday had condemned journalists like me, and even the late George John, as “racists”. Such rhetoric came to million-dollar litigation grief only when he called former publisher Ken Gordon a “pseudo racist”.

Dr Rowley and his hard-hitters are convinced, as I am, that T&T owes a duty of care to politicians in general and MPs in particular, who like nobody else, and with relatively little reward and recognition, had served as drones keeping T&T democracy going.

People with lesser appreciation of their contribution risk being called “rats”. That’s part of the price to be paid for democracy.

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