WHATEVER his intention going into Monday’s failed swim from Tobago to Toco, Tobago House of Assembly (THA) Minority Leader Watson Duke endangered his life and, therefore, the position he holds within the THA. His protest action, if indeed it amounted to even that, risked depriving Tobagonians of a dissenting voice within the THA. It continued a dangerous trend that has been set when it comes to protest action that makes a mockery of the sanctity of life.
Any citizen has a right to take protest action. And people who are public officials also enjoy the privilege of being in a position to shine a spotlight on issues that ordinarily do not receive the attention they deserve. We can think of many causes that would benefit from some form of public advocacy, such as the rights of the disabled; the rights of members of the LGBT community; the rights of the poor and the disenfranchised in our society. A person who seeks to put their money where their mouth is and take some sort of action is to be lauded.
But there can be no doubt that the issue of the need for a more reliable sea and air link between Trinidad and Tobago is an issue that is receiving attention. Over the last few years, and particularly the last few months, the nation has been regaled by development after development in relation to this matter.
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley has called several meetings and press conferences because of it; a minister has even promised to resign should corruption in a contract be revealed; and key members of civil society – from both the commercial and non-commercial sectors – have spoken out. This matter already has a high profile.
What, then, are we to make of Duke’s claim to wanting to bring the matter to the fore? It is like a citizen saying they want to protest to raise awareness over the fact that the economy is in a recession. By this stage, no one needs such edification.
We must consider the post Duke fills. He is not merely a unionist. Nor is he simply an assemblyman. He is the THA Minority Leader. That is not a position to be taken lightly. Even former chief secretary Orville London, upon the PNM’s complete washout of the Ashworth Jack-led TOP slate in 2013, saw the importance of critical feedback to keep his 12-0 administration on track. The people of Tobago need a voice to keep those in power in Tobago to account. Arguably, the PNM, too, in particular needs that voice to enhance its grasp of the issues and to keep it responsive.
Duke embarked on his swim after the shoddiest of preparation regimes. For a feat that would take expert swimmers months to prepare, he took days of rehearsal. While he sought to reduce risk by wearing a life jacket and roping in the company of his seafaring contingent, it is clear enough that he took a risk in all the circumstances.
The Minority Leader follows in the footsteps of high-profile protest action by people such as Wayne Kublalsingh who, in 2015, embarked on a hunger strike that also endangered his life.
Make no mistake, there is a time and a place to protest in any democratic nation. That is why individuals and groups are allowed this privilege under certain stipulations. Often, the measure of the worthiness of such a protest cannot be gauged by its results (though that is certainly a good barometer). No, protest is valued because of what it says about our freedoms. But not when human life is the price.
Further, Duke’s comments to the media on Monday did a disservice the nation he is meant to serve. The sea bridge issue is one that is relevant not only to Tobago, it is very much vital to Trinidad. The Minority Leader’s claim that our governments – presumably including those ruled by two Tobagonian prime ministers thus far – are being “satanic” is one straw too much. He has simply taken us head first into bad waters.