Ragoonath: Political leaders have no respect for each other

Political scientist Dr Bishnu Ragoonath.  -
Political scientist Dr Bishnu Ragoonath. -

CHAIRMAN of the Council for Responsible Political Behaviour Dr Bishnu Ragoonath said political leaders of the two main parties have shown little respect for each other.

He was speaking on a virtual panel Understanding and Reconciling Race Relations in TT organised by the University of the West Indies (UWI) Faculty of Law and the Catholic Commission for Social Justice.

He said from 2015 to 2020 there have been many concerns about racial statements by politicians and individuals on both sides. He recalled there was political disrespect of leaders against each other with the Prime Minister describing the Opposition Leader's comments as "jammetry" and the Opposition Leader referring to the Prime Minister as an "oreo." He also said in the run-up to the 2020 election, Kamla Persad-Bissessar made the "blank man" comment to refer to Dr Rowley.

He recalled when Persad-Bissessar was asked about advertisements which painted Afro-Trinidadians in a negative light, she said she did not know what people were talking about. And when Rowley was asked about racial tension after his swearing-in, he said the UNC had run a race-based campaign and he and his party took no responsibility for the state of affairs.

Ragoonath said to move forward on the issue, there needs to be responsibility and respect.

"All political parties need to accept responsibility for where we are. And an effort must be made to address the issue of racism."

He also said there must be open and frank discussion based on respect.

"Based on the language, including the body language, of the two main political leaders, it is not far fetched to say they have little to no respect for each other."

He said both leaders were able to mobilise more than 300,000 people to vote for their parties, and if their political followers see a lack of respect shown to the other they will replicate that behaviour.

"They must lead by example."

Ragoonath recalled in 2014 leaders of five major political parties signed the code of ethical political conduct which, it was hoped, would lift the standard of political campaigns.

"There are many instances of politicians who signed the code and then breached the code regarding race, racism and race-baiting in the 2015 campaign."

He reported in one month the council deliberated on five such complaints from both the PNM and the UNC. He recalled, the offending party leaders never took responsibility for the violations of the code and in several instances sought to defend the divisive statements.

UWI professor emeritus Rhoda Reddock said elections and post-election periods are difficult times for the country as it reaches down into the fears and insecurities of a racially polarised, post-colonial society.

"Attacks on political leaders become attacks against a people. These attacks perpetuate feelings of shame, anger, victimhood and hatred."

She said if political leaders do not apologise for attacks done by their members then the wounds from these attacks fester.

She recalled during the election campaign there was the narrative of the lazy Afro-Trinidadian at the bottom of the economic pile who had been failed by the PNM government. She said this narrative was promoted by Afro-Trinidadian radio hosts and activists as well as on Indo-Trinidadian radio stations, and elements of it were used in the UNC campaign. She said the educated middle classes, which are the majority of swing voters, were outraged by this narrative as it was okay for Afro-Trinidadians to criticise their own rather than having it from outside.

"These dangerous stereotypes reflect little understanding of the historic socio-economic circumstances and creates barriers for young people."

She said post-election 2020 the sense of loss was great by a collective group and while in 1995 when Basdeo Panday became prime minister there were race calypsoes in 2020 this occurred in social media.

"A people groomed to see themselves as successful and superior erupted in loss by a 'less wealthy and inferior people.' It is not a party that lost but a people."

She said there was so much focusing on the other group there was no room for internal self-reflection. She advised to combat the racial division there needed to be a rethinking of the way children are taught, more involvement of artists, writers and poets, and possibly legislation on hate speech.


"Ragoonath: Political leaders have no respect for each other"

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