A conscience vote

Cumuto/Manzanilla MP Dr Rai Ragbir on his way to Parliament. - File photo by Faith Ayoung
Cumuto/Manzanilla MP Dr Rai Ragbir on his way to Parliament. - File photo by Faith Ayoung

THE hard, though largely unspoken rule for representatives of a political party in Trinidad and Tobago is that a vote in Parliament runs along party lines.

The local party system has tended not to be kind to its members who choose to vote according to their beliefs or an evaluation of the matters under deliberation.

So it wasn't surprising to hear Dr Rai Ragbir speak with clear resignation about his future with the party after voting in favour of the Government's Whistleblower Bill, 2024 on June 21.

He seemed not at all surprised to be receiving hard looks from his parliamentary colleagues and to news that his political leader had dubbed him "a PNM."

Dr Ragbir is the MP for Cumuto/Manzanilla and has served as one of the party's deputy political leaders and its treasurer.

After the sitting, reactions from MPs ranged from opposition whip David Lee's assertion that Dr Ragbir was suffering from political tabanca, leading to "rogue" behaviour, to Fitzgerald Hinds' inflammatory accusation that the vote was a signal that the UNC was collapsing.

Dr Ragbir was part of the United Patriots rival slate of candidates assembled by Rushton Paray to contest the UNC's internal elections.

Dr Ragbir now finds himself being pilloried by his colleagues in the UNC and damned with faint praise from members of the PNM because he chose to vote according to his conscience. He could have chosen to seek approved absence from June 21's sitting in the House, but he attended and registered his vote, knowing from previous examples of independent action in the party that things would not go well for him.

Perhaps he found himself confronting the irony of voting on the Whistleblower Bill, a document that's designed to empower people of conscience to speak their minds on matters of corporate and national concern while being restrained by his circumstances as a member under the whip, to either toe the line or remain silent.

As a practising physician, he spoke of being concerned about complaints regarding operations in the Sangre Grande Regional Corporation by employees who feared to make their concerns public, fearing victimisation.

What's likely to happen to Dr Ragbir in the wake of his decision to act according to his reasoned opinion is entirely predictable. The UNC, having just completed its internal elections and preparing for general elections, is likely to simply sideline its MP for Cumuto/Manzanilla in party matters until he can be replaced as a candidate for his own seat.

That's regrettable, because instances of elected officials breaking from expected party mandates to register their own opinions on critical national matters are far too rare in our political landscape. Dr Ragbir's example should encourage discussion, not silence it.


"A conscience vote"

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