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Still Buying Cat In Bag

By Sunity Maharaj

 A government sliding down the polls in the final year of its term can be a very dangerous prospect for a country and its people. 

Inside the zone of electoral desperation, expediency runs wild as the stakes for winning go higher and higher with the operational code being “by any means necessary”. 

In the circumstances, a country needs to be more alert than ever in protecting the public interest against the government’s temptation to indulge in political layaway plans that allow them to buy votes now while leaving us to pay the devil later.

The regular change of government since 1986 has only intensified the desperation as politicians, financiers, party supporters and business and professional beneficiaries and investors recognise that a change of government could mean a major change in fortunes for them. A governing party that is not fancied to survive the election finds itself under intense pressures to sign contracts and commitments of all kinds. This is how, from one administration to another, we end up with unoccupied buildings rented at exorbitant cost to the Treasury, with incompetent party hacks on extended contracts that have to be bought out at enormous cost to the public purse and with onerous contractual obligations for goods and services that we never really needed.

This is why, for the next year or so, all of us who hold the public interest in trust, whether in government, Parliament, the Public Service, the media, other institutions and organisations and people everywhere, must be alert and in a state of hyper-vigilance to the government’s decision and actions.

It is safe to expect the Prime Minister to maintain her position of calling elections when they are due.  That much can be gleaned from her anxiety to secure a $5 billion loan from the Chinese before the end of fiscal year September to finance six new “economic zones” by next March, just in time for the 2015 general election. Assuming five of the six are those identified in the Government’s Medium Term Plan 2012, major questions arise about the rush-job financing being sought in 2014 from the Chinese and the terms that the government is willing to endure in order to give the Partnership a push in the polls.  

In a functioning democracy, the public interest would demand full disclosure, not only about the loan being sought and its terms if granted, but of all the MOUs and other agreements signed by the Prime Minister and her delegation during her recent trip to China. Indeed, all agreements signed between T&T and any country should be laid in Parliament for public knowledge and for review by a standing committee on foreign affairs mandated to protect the public interest. 

Similarly with agreements signed between state agencies such as Lake Asphalt (1978) and foreign companies like China Railway Construction, Beijing Oriental Yuhong Waterproofing Technology and others. All these contracts should be laid in Parliament for review, in this case, by a standing committee on energy acting in the public interest. 

In the case of energy, such a requirement would be consistent with T&T’s recent obligations under the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) which nullify the long-standing position of T&T governments that state contracts in the energy sector must be kept confidential in the competitive interest of the business parties involved. 

By signing on to the EITI, we have now accepted the modern view that matters involving public resources are properly the public’s business. As a critical national and heritage resource, all agreements involving the Pitch Lake should be fully disclosed to the people of T&T before some future generation wakes up one day to find itself locked out due to some careless agreement signed by some desperate government.

For all the scandalous revelations dropped on us in Parliament, on political platforms and by the media, this is a country where the public hardly ever knows anything for a fact. Public information, conflicting and self-serving, exists in a vortex of such contentiousness that it is easier for us to hold on to our subjective views and walk away in the hope that one day, truth will come out.

Public information as the golden key to the lock of public interest remains alien to a people who, more than 50 years after Independence, still see themselves as being outside the power equation. 

For how else does one explain the continuing acceptance of autocracy as expressed in Carnival’s many competitions where intelligent people subject themselves to being judged without the right to have detailed information on the expertise of the judging panel, the right to challenge judges and the judging process in advance of competition, the right to a period of appeal and the right to all pertinent information regarding their score? In Carnival, the most intense symbol of our freedom, autocracy remains the order of the day. 

Instead of insisting on our right to know, we continue to buy cat in bag, accepting our historic lot as people not entitled to know, without the dignity to have a say and who cannot be trusted with the responsibility of knowing because, apparently, we ain’t pass that stage yet.

As we approach the las’ lap to election 2015, redemption beckons us. If we could resurrect the spirit that kept hope alive after the rigours of the Atlantic, the horrors of the Middle Passage and the anguish of the Kala Pani, if we could glimpse the wealth of a nation beyond income bracket, we might find will and reason to drag ourselves from the stupor of the past and align our private and public interests so that, finally, we could embrace the task of transforming these islands into a nation with ourselves as people who truly belong here and own this place.

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