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JUST LIKE IT IS – Silence not golden


Peter Simmons

JUST LIKE IT IS – Silence not golden

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As any writer of a regular column knows, feedback is an important index in measuring public reaction. I have therefore come to accept it as an indispensable occupational hazard which, at a minimum, signals that the column is being read.
But not everyone who reads understands while some manufacture political bias out of everything.
When I wrote two Sundays ago that there was a public information deficit and the public was not being kept abreast of information which should be readily shared, I anticipated the usual highly-charged reaction from those looking for a political point.
Chastising me for perceived political bias, a caller said he looked forward to the day when my “English wife” and I returned to settle in London. Seemingly cut from the same cloth as the United States “birthers”, he refused to accept that my wife is Bajan to the bone and to pluralize Denys Plummer’s appropriate calypso I Nah Leaving: “It is here whey conceive we, it is here we goin’ dead.”
Another caller, declaring his political stripes upfront, wanted to know if I was saying that what Cabinet discusses should be made public. I explained to him that was not what I had in mind, though the fact that Prime Minister Thompson promised weekly media briefings immediately after Cabinet met on Thursdays suggested there may have been some Cabinet decisions he thought worthy of sharing.
Early in the life of his administration, there were a few briefings but they soon went the way of the dodo bird. Post-Cabinet media briefings take place weekly in Trinidad, providing useful, authentic information for the public on important issues.
I well remember Sir James Tudor, then our distinguished Minister of Foreign Affairs, telling a group of young diplomats that 90 per cent of what the Cabinet discussed could be shared with the public without any detrimental repercussions. In his considered judgement based on long experience, too much of what the public should know coming out of Cabinet meetings was cloaked in unnecessary secrecy.
This, he thought, was part of the mystique surrounding public decision-making in our newly independent nation state struggling to find its feet after centuries of colonial rule and deep distrust of the local civil servants by their imported British bosses.
I made the point in the article under reference that I was not aware that the Prime Minister was responsible for immigration and that Senators Darcy Boyce and Harry Husbands also shared immigration responsibilities. Numerous callers told me they too, were unaware and shared my opinion that the Cabinet Office and Government Information Service had a responsibility to keep the public informed.
If I knew the Prime Minister was responsible for immigration, I would have called him late last year on a serious national matter instead of making three calls to who I thought was responsible and leaving three messages. None of my calls was returned.      
But there is much more on which the silence of these agencies leads to unnecessary confusion. For example, the public was informed late in February that the substantive Minister of the Environment, Water Resources and Drainage, Dr Dennis Lowe, was out of hospital, recuperating at home and would return to work on March 1.
Writing this column Friday, I am informed that Mr Denis Kellman is still the minister.
If Dr Lowe was not resuming on March 1 for whatever reason, 45 days later the people who put him in Parliament and the wider public should have been informed. He holds public office and is paid from the public purse. He is a public figure and the public has every right to know what is happening.
I trust that the minister responsible for information, whoever that is, will clarify this situation. And while at it, since the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation falls under that portfolio, tell the public if it is a fact that Mr Leroy Parris has been replaced as chairman by Mr Doug Hoyte.
Minister of Tourism Richard Sealy set an example worthy of emulation when changing the Barbados Tourism Authority board.
It is difficult to understand what could justify the public being kept in the dark on matters such as these.
For obvious reasons, there is another matter relating to a major appointment on which there has been a conspicuous silence recently. Playing yo-yo at this level is not to anybody’s credit and hardly in the country’s best interest. 
It is noted with interest that after certain premature comments and one leading actor getting on her bike, making a 360-degree turn and taking the Damascus road, the silence which has followed the meeting of Barbadian and Jamaican diplomats on the Myrie affair is a timely recourse to quiet diplomacy. 
There are a large number of issues of national concern on which the people of Barbados would dearly like to hear from the leaders of the political class. The cost of living was highlighted in the 2008 political campaign as the No. 1, 2 and 3 priority.
While it is recognized that extraneous factors are impinging, John and Jane Public are waiting to hear what, if anything, is being done to ease the pressure. 
This is a time when silence on too many things is far from golden!
 
Peter Simmons, a social scientist, is a former diplomat. 

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