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Monday 10 December 2018
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Rowley’s great worry

Worry. This is described as “allowing one’s mind to dwell on difficulty or troubles.”

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley expressed a great worry last Sunday at the People’s National Movement’s 48th annual convention in Tobago. Referring to the queries over the Sandals’ hotel project, he said: “We have people throughout our society who are chronic dividers, captured by self and partisan interest. Thankfully, we have many other voices that are multipliers, patriots.”

He added: “They (‘the dividers’) oppose because the Government, if it gets through, it would look too good. That is the root of the crabs-in-a-barrel syndrome. That is the extreme cost of party before country.” Given the structure of Parliament, the policy-making process and what the “next elections” mean, would such an age-old worry cease?

Dr Rowley’s worry should trigger deep thinking about the extent to which lack of political consensus is severely holding back this country’s social and economic development. The need for correction goes beyond party vs party quarrels. The Sandals’ issue is beginning to look like a “Trinidad vs Tobago war.” I worry.

You see, “crabs-in-a-barrel syndrome, party before country,” etc, wherever, are political attitudes–symptoms really–largely shaped by two major factors: (1) the lack of a core set of shared values that nobly govern our political party system so that “self and partisan interest” would not subvert the national good. (2) The divisive win-loss rigidity of the parliamentary structure, well-known by all leaders, but left without required reforms. But all this have been said before.

I recall a previous column (edited, April 4, 2018): “For many years now, our Westminster-type government has been plagued with complaints of public misconduct, state corruption, self-interest and inefficiency such that one political leader after another–from Dr Williams, George Chambers, ANR Robinson, Basdeo Panday, Kamla Persad-Bissessar and now Dr Keith Rowley–has had to defend their members and sometimes themselves. Is the Westminster system against us, or in need of repairs? Or is it that we do not have the ethics and traditions to operate this legally-framed system?

“When Opposition Leader, Ms Kamla Persad-Bissessar recently appealed for “new faces” in her United National Congress party, it wasn’t only a matter of age. And when Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley admitted that sometimes “bad politicians get elected” to Parliament, it wasn’t only over a troubled housing project. It seems a struggle against a permissive political system – a poisoned mixture of bad habits and weak structures.

“So far our Westminster institutions have not effectively delivered. Part of the reason is that the system puts a lot of trust on politicians whose resumes reveal too little about their dark sides.

“As the Westminster party system evolved, there were always troubling concerns over the overpowering impact of self-interest, arrogance, greed and untamed ambitions. How can the Westminster system be reformed without having a one-party state, a dictatorship, undue patronage and election financing?

“This ‘self-interest vs the public good’ tension has been at the centre of the furious economic and political debates during the 16th to 20th centuries, going beyond Westminster domain. Today, almost all formerly British democracies are struggling to “fix the system” so as to prevent or prosecute self-interest, greed, misconduct or plain runaway vanities.

“The Westminster system, enriched for example, with a Canadian-type bill of rights, provides cherished freedoms – eg speech, association, privacy, movement, etc. But within this, there are lots of spaces which depend on personal integrity, trust, self-respect and shame. Such spaces have instead been greedily exploited, even legally so, turning due process privileges into an economic battle between the poor and rich with justice as an acceptable casualty and the hypocrisy between.

“Our Westminster-derived institutions are failing, pushing citizens into dis-spirited self-preservation and political distrust. The population must revisit its original powers so as to control elected representatives. Ministers, crowded by numerous cabinet sub-committees and parliamentary meetings, show little or no regard for constituents.

“Too many allegations of corruption and misconduct have slipped through Westminster spaces. Many political and moral philosophers (eg Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Pareto, Adam Smith, etc) warned us about the civic dangers of greed, frozen inequalities, envy, vanity and subversive self-interest.”

Beyond everyday contestations, both Dr Rowley and Ms Persad-Bissessar should now propose reforms to neutralise subversive self-interest and anaesthetise the crabs. This should bring less worry.

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