?Once again the national community appears to be engaging in one of those dust-ups which bring all the regular players out on stage–ministers, opposition politicians, lawyers, gadflies, letter writers, radio-callers, et al–emitting the regular noises of accusation, denial, charges of racism and nepotism, calls for resignation, demands for inquiries, statements in Parliament, interviews, etcetera.
The cause of discomfort this time is the matter of financial assistance given to some 460 citizens by the Ministry of Community Development, Culture and Gender Affairs. Unfortunately, the incumbent minister had refused to disclose details until a recent threat of court action prompted the Government's release of names and numbers. While there is no doubt that the Government means well, best practice in the governance of modern democratic states requires administrations to strive for the highest degree of transparency. The Government operated in this case as though it had something to hide: first refusing to provide the names of the recipients of financial assistance to the Parliament and then only making the information public after a group, promoting the interests of Indo-Trinidadians, sued under the Freedom of Information Act. Instead of holding the financial assistance up as the action of an administration seeking to improve the educational opportunities of those most in need, the Government held the funding down, treating it like some unloved outside child.
The Government has spent billions increasing the capacity of the St Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies, establishing the University of Trinidad and Tobago and footing the tuition fees for all those citizens wishing to pursue tertiary education. The current administration cuts a fair figure when the spotlight lands on its education policies and performances: there is the impressive truth that between the 2008 and 2010 fiscal years, the Government allocated $9.9 billion to the Ministry of Education, and $5.5 billion to the Ministry of Science, Technology and Tertiary Education. Given the serialised wave of disclosures and responses, we now call for a more mature approach to the matter in order to derive the fullest educative value from the issues. Notwithstanding the good intentions of self-appointed activists–though perhaps skewed by partisan political posturings as the investigators and complainants appeared on party platforms to make their case–there are now three basic lessons the society may wish to take warning of for the future.
One, that the scrutiny of citizens in our community ought to be welcomed and indeed encouraged as healthy citizen-action meant to keep a government on the straight and narrow. It must be remembered, however, that the barking of a watchdog if indulged in for every passer-by will eventually lead to a fed-up society ignoring the one time a true burglar appears. Two, that a government has the power and privilege, indeed the mandate assigned by the electorate, to use its best judgment to manage the affairs of the country–devising programmes of assistance to the citizenry and disbursing funds in a responsible manner without having to dash out and consult the public on a minute-by-minute basis. But a government must bear in mind that a citizenry that is informed is a nation that can get involved. People respond best when they are treated with appropriate respect, as children and adults.
Three, that all sides should find wisdom in the biblical quotation "the truth shall set you free" and set truth as their pursuit as opposed to the protection of entrenched positions and the maintaining of status quo. It may be that the Government should be given some credit–as opposed to flippant cynicism–for providing financial assistance to citizens in need, especially our young in pursuit of outfitting themselves educationally, thus gearing up to make a contribution to the advancement of our country. Minister Marlene MacDonald's explanation in the House yesterday gave a little more understanding of the assistance provided by her ministry, and damped down the controversy, contrived or genuine. But we must appeal for, indeed insist, that a more professional mechanism has to be devised and deployed to share all aspects of public service with the public. After all, the word "public" does come before "service."