At the ceremonial opening of the 4th Session of the 12th Parliament on September 10, 2023, our brand-new President Christine Kangaloo had lots to say, on old and new matters, but she did not develop most of the new ones informatively enough. If only she had asked me … .
From the newspaper reports, she spoke on the following themes: 1) the need for collaboration between Government and Opposition on the mitigation of crime; 2) unfair public criticism of parliamentarians; 3) parliamentary endorsement of the steelpan (much like what the UN General Assembly has done); 4) progressive legislation on the rights of people living with disabilities; 5) legislation to forestall the threats posed by Artificial Intelligence; 6) legislation that takes into account the new realities of working in a post-pandemic world; 7) review of the Parliament’s Standing Orders; and 8) development of a fixed parliamentary agenda.
Her Excellency tells us upfront that she is going to focus on five matters but, as you can see, she covers at least three more. Matters 1, 4, 7, and 8, I would consider old, and the rest (2, 3, 5, and 6) I would consider different. I would have loved to hear more on these different ones, but perhaps the press reports chinksed on her content. We can agree that all the matters she raised are important but that some are more important than others. Some of us would have included matters that seem to be low in importance to her.
Collaboration on crime mitigation seemed to be the most popular matter, eliciting views from the alpha politicians. PM Rowley was diffident and sarcastic to boot:
‘Unfortunately, I’m of the view that there are some colleagues of mine in the Parliament who believe that if things get worse, it will get better for them. I would be very happy if that view is not adhered to.’
Opposition Leader Persad-Bissessar observed that they had heeded the Government’s call for collaboration but that it had not worked out:
‘Numerous times we have asked the Government to meet with them. They met once or twice many moons ago and took nothing on board that we would have said.’
She went on to point out that all the matters the President talked about were in the Government’s hands, implying that they should be facilitating the collaboration process.
And former PM Basdeo Panday reminded us of some hard political facts:
‘In this political system, the Opposition wants to take the Government’s position and the Government wants to prevent them from doing so. You expect them to cooperate? That’s war and therefore, they behave as though they are at war.’
He went on with emphasis:
‘They are at war. How you expect them to cooperate? You expect the Opposition to cooperate with the Government to make them win the next elections? Or you expect the Government to cooperate with the Opposition for them to win the elections? Surely not! What we need is a change of the political system.’
With a political background in which she was MP, cabinet minister, and president of the Senate, didn’t the President know this?
She suggested the collaborative mechanism of a Public Bill Committee (as in the United Kingdom) that would take away the tedium of clause-by-clause analysis of new bills and free parliamentarians to focus on more interesting tasks, but no reporter seems to have been interested enough to ask the alphas for their views on it.
Nobody seems to have been taken up either with issues not covered by the President. Issues like transparency, accountability, and Tobagonian autonomy. If only she had asked me...
Mrs Persad-Bissessar felt that the President missed ‘a golden opportunity’ to explore the issues of transparency and accountability, and Chief Secretary Augustine thought that autonomy was one of the issues she should have declared herself on. Hear Augustine:
‘I think it is about time (for the realisation of autonomy). Although the President didn’t make it one of her five wishes, I am hoping that it would be the wish of the current session of Parliament for us to revive autonomy for Tobago because all of that would treat with issues such as inter-island transportation service, healthcare, and so many other issues that the average Tobagonian experiences daily, that the average Trinidadian might be oblivious to.’
Associated with autonomy is the President’s appointment of four new Independent Senators, with none coming from Tobago. She was probably working with the perspective that she had kept Dr Maria Dillon-Remy, a Tobagonian and that the latter was a sufficient representative for Tobago (to the extent that Independent Senators are picked to represent particular constituencies. But in our politics, Tobago is a political constituency, but it is not specially represented in the Senate.
There are 31 senators and all except three are Trinidadians–Nigel De Freitas and Laurence Hislop (representing the PNM), and Dr. Dillon-Remy (unaffiliated). The other arrangements are as follows: 16 PNM voices but only two are Tobagonian; six UNC voices but none is Tobagonian; nine Independent voices but only one is Tobagonian. Clearly, there is inequality against Tobago in the Senate.
With her considerable experience, Her Excellency must be aware of this unequal state of affairs and, accordingly, should have sought to have it addressed. She could have appointed four Tobagonian Independents to join Dr Dillon-Remy (with the advantage going to Tobago, having regard to the long historical advantage enjoyed by Trinidad). Indeed, what about amending things so that the seats in the Senate are divided equally between the two islands?
As Panday observed, the system needs to be changed.
Winford James is a retired UWI lecturer who has been analysing issues in education, language, development, and politics in Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean on radio and TV since the 1970s. He has also written hundreds of columns for all the major newspapers in the country. He can be reached at jaywinster