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Verna rings the bell

By Selwyn Ryan

In her statement on December 1, 2012,Verna St Rose Greaves said some provocative things about the Prime Minister and some of the ministers whom she has in her Cabinet team.

Not surprisingly, she was accused of making a spiteful reply which was intended to "lick up" Kamla and the coalition.

My intelligence tells me that this was not the whole truth nor the intent and that Ms St Rose Greaves did in fact make the intervention after discussing the issues with a number of persons in the Women's network who felt that Kamla was being held hostage by a "greedy, vicious, desperate cabal" who were not only scripting her policies, but who were also misgoverning the country which was careening off the rails.

These assertions, if true, constitute very serious criticisms of the policy-making process which is supposed to be collegial. The women also claim that many had bought into the women's policy, abortion rights, gay marriage, spousal and child abuse, and other human rights, and that that agenda was being sacrificed and sabotaged by a cabal or coterie of patriarchs, call them what you will.

The women's group was not only concerned about Kamla's legacy but also that of women in power generally.

As Verna explained, "I do not want our first woman leader to go down in this way. The woman is loved. She can still salvage her legacy (but)...she has to configure how things get done. She has to assert her position and have a better handle on what her ministers are doing."

St Rose Greaves claims that Kamla is taking cues from her ministers rather than providing leadership. "Every time something happens, she allows these men to get up and make statements and say all kinds of things. She takes her cue from them. We can't go on like this. They will kill the goose that lays the golden egg."

What we are witnessing, in my view, is not a clash between a spiteful, vengeful officeholder on the one hand, and a group of patriarchs on the other, but a fight over critical policy items and governance processes. The two are linked as they are in Dr Kublalsingh's a campaign. Women have seized the time.

As a political analyst, I see nothing unusual about what is taking place. It is normal for ruling groups to have cliques or cabals and powerful individuals who represent interests or ideological positions. Most cabinets have policy or policy divisions, though the divisions are not always out on the table. The problem is to determine which group brings together the so-called good guys and which the bad guys. Unlike the US Supreme Court, membership is rarely ever constant over time. Membership changes as political fortunes or alignments change. Much is determined by the PM's style and how confident and competent he or she is or believe he/she is. Some leaders read their papers and some do not. Some like Reagan read little. Clinton was a policy wonk. Some do no work and concern themselves with PR. Some do not go to the office much

What is unusual in this case is that it is a women's group which is challenging the "boys" over policy and style of governance.

What is also interesting is that Kamla has not only rejected the help offered by the women, but has signalled that she shares the views of the "cabal" on most issues.

(But) She was however the "boss" in substance as well as style, and she was "all right Jack".

Verna created real difficulty for Kamla when she was advised to level with the people about her health issues. She was in trouble whatever the reply given. Frankness was called for and that was not forthcoming.

Kamla's ministers have also been playing a curious game.

They seem to believe that loyalty has become an issue, and that times call for all to project "oneness". Several have thus embarked on a deliberate strategy of praise-singing and making her larger than life — a sort of Caribbean "Eva Peron", which is not good for her or anyone.

In the process of making her complaint about governance style, St Rose-Greaves made some interesting comments about collective responsibility. As she writes, "collective responsibility suggests that we have shared decisions, we have discussions...and then I am to be held responsible...But there are no minutes of Cabinet in terms of who said what, who supported what decision about Clause 34; no one knows who objected to it, who were present at the discussion, whether it was discussed or not...You don't know what was the majority decision, so the Prime Minister and a little grouping would say something and it comes out as if it was the majority position, when you do not even (recall it being discussed)- but you are held to be responsible. We have to deal with that, she openly challenged."

"The country has to decide on the question of leadership."

"Who is in charge depends on what is being discussed whether we are discussing a particular piece of legislation, buying over companies, or moving things out of Port of Spain beyond the Caroni River.

At any time, it's a group of people who are in charge...when the decision is being made. He or she or whoever is in charge has to ring the bell and fix the system."

Verna has made some very serious criticisms of the decision-making in Cabinet.

The complaints are not unique to Trinidad. The Westminster process is very informal and it is the Prime Minister who decides what is the consensus. As Harold Wilson advised, the Prime Minister has the power to sum up, and in doing so, determines the outcome. That is the reality.

Kamla had come face to face with a problem faced by many women political leaders.

How should they play their part?

Who should be their role model?

They worry that they are seen as extensions of some alpha male who presumes that women are weak as leaders and either need tutelage or a man in their political life.

If on the other hand they act tough and firm, it is said that they are men in skirts acting contrary to some gender imperatives.

As Kamla said forcibly, "Don't mistake my being a woman as being weak. Being a leader does not mean that I cannot be compassionate and caring while I make and implement tough decisions."

Kamla was perhaps talking as much to the men around her as she was to her women.

Verna agrees that it is not easy to be a woman leader and called upon women to do something.

"Female leadership is not easy. I think the time has come for us to say something and do something about it. The Westminster Cabinet system, like others invites factionalism. When women lead them, novel problems arise."

On paper, the model gives the impressions of stability and cohesion.

This was Verna's view as to what ought to happen. But what she found was very different from the ideal. What she claimed to have found was not collegiality or genuine openness. She was not part of the patriarchal cabal that made the key decisions.

It was thus time to "Ring the Bell."

But we have another question. If Cabinets function in different ways depending on the personality of the leader, how competent and confidential he/she is, what threats he/she perceives, whether he/she is challenged, what is the balance of power in the cabinet or the party, or in the country, is there not a case to be made for the uniqueness of gender?

Human bodies malfunction.

"Wardrobe malfunctions" are also a reality.

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