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FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH: Country first

Dr Frances Chandler

FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH: Country first

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I maintain my position that many of our problems today are caused not by the Westminster system of government, but by those managing the system. But since it’s clear that human behaviour worldwide is on the decline, we shouldn’t expect to see any miraculous upward movement here, so we’ll most likely need to make changes to the system if we’re to rein in our politicians who apparently consider themselves all-powerful, not to be questioned by those who elected them to office.
Why be so proud of educating the electorate and then treat them like fools? Although I must say that some of these supposedly educated people seem to be blinded by very short-term gains reportedly offered at election time, only to cause long-term suffering for the entire country.
Of course, we’re all to blame for politicians’ attitudes, having remained complacent and seemingly uninterested in national affairs generally until some event affects us directly. We’re proud that changes in government take place peacefully, but our politicians have become so accustomed to our “mild manners” that any attempt to express disapproval is taken as a major affront.
As far as I recall, some of our expressions of dissatisfaction were recently disparagingly dismissed as “noise”. We must make them understand that they’re not as important as our country.
Now we have the disappointing statement from Sir Frank Alleyne (whom I usually find to be fairly reasonable), describing a peaceful group led by the Opposition Leader to Government Headquarters as a “mob”. That’s scary! And although I understand that the Opposition Leader asked to see the Prime Minister’s secretary rather than the Prime Minister himself, why shouldn’t the Prime Minister be available to speak to the Opposition Leader? Shouldn’t she be accorded the same respect as the Prime Minister?
I never thought there could be anything emanating from Trinidad that we would want to emulate, but I take that back. Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s move to limit the term of office of prime ministers, have a definite date for elections, as well as allow for the recall of members of parliament is a good one which we should seriously consider. The term limit seems to be straightforward and has apparently worked well in over 90 countries but, as columnist Shantal Munro-Knight noted in the Sunday Sun, the recall would need to be handled carefully.
With a term limit in place, egos would be taken out of the equation and former Prime Minister Owen Arthur would’ve been able to “bow out gracefully” and maintain his dignity. Instead of all the turmoil he seemed to be involved in over the last six years, maybe he would’ve completed his book(s) and behaved like the elder statesman that he is.
We’ve experienced the arrogance of politicians over time, and there seems to be no doubt that the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) was removed from office in 2008 for just that reason. I certainly know of many faithful BLP followers who said they voted against them because they had become too entrenched and arrogant. As an email I received recently claimed, “politicians are like diapers – they should be changed often, and for the same reason”. Unfortunately, though, it didn’t seem to take even one term for the Democratic Labour Party to contract the same disease.
I agree with incremental change to preserve our democracy. We’ve started by trimming the Public Service. Hopefully there will be further reforms to make it efficient, effective and accountable. The same is needed with our politicians. We could start by trimming the Cabinet which, according to my copy of the Constitution, must have no less than five members. It now has 17. There were originally 24 seats in Parliament, now there are 30. This mushrooming must be curbed.
We need more civil society participation, whether or not the politicians like it. Private members’ bills and questions must be responded to in Parliament. I recall that Senator Sir John Goddard went to his grave without having his questions answered. Then, of course, there is the question of whether or not political parties are really necessary (our Constitution doesn’t seem to mention them). Maybe if members of Parliament voted by conscience and not like robots “toeing a party line”, the outcome would be better. We have enough political scientists to investigate all the possibilities and put forward suggestions.
• Dr Frances Chandler is a former Independent senator.