Sunday 5th December, 2004

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Reactions to the Caricom bill

The Prime Minister has come a long way since the time, not much more than a decade ago, when he and his party based an election campaign on not allowing asylum in this country to a handful of Haitian refugees.

In the course of that journey, Mr Manning has found himself leading from in front on the issue of Caricom and regional integration. In fact, it seems he’s left the rest of his own party and the Opposition so far behind they’re struggling to catch up.

Last week the House debated two bills on Caricom; one to give effect to the revised Treaty of Chaguaramas and hence the Caribbean Single Market and Economy, and the other to lift restrictions on Caricom citizens’ working, investing and setting up companies in this country.

If the CSME does come to pass, it will make huge changes in the relations between Caribbean countries. Unfortunately, not many people in the House knew what those changes might be, and the rest didn’t seem very interested. Caricom is one of those issues which are worthy but dull; it is dear only to the heart of Mr Manning, who appears to want to leave the achievement of Caribbean integration as his legacy.

The rest of the House sat meekly through debate on both bills. Couva South MP Kelvin Ramnath arrived on Wednesday with a complete set of the day’s newspapers, apparently planning to read them in defiance of the Speaker’s ruling, but then lost interest in his own high jinks and lent them to his neighbour Kamla Persad-Bissessar; and on Friday he didn’t show up at all.

The same handful of members spoke on both bills, but left the House none the wiser. Foreign Affairs Minister Knowlson Gift, who piloted both bills, distinguished himself by failing to shed any light whatsoever on what the advent of the CSME would mean. MP for Diego Martin East Colm Imbert raised large and possibly alarming questions about what the CSME might mean for national sovereignty, then tried to allay the fears he had roused by saying that he had personally studied the treaty and was satisfied there were no looming dangers. Well, once Mr Imbert says something is okay, the whole House is reassured, naturally.

It was UNC leader Basdeo Panday who signed the revised Treaty of Chaguaramas in 2001 while he was Prime Minister, so in principle the Opposition supported the bills. But they wouldn’t just come out and say so.

Oropouche MP Dr Roodal Moonilal accused the Prime Minister of formulating foreign policy on his own, in the course of trips to Jamaica or Grenada, or during the too-frequent visits to this country of St Vincent Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves.

Dr Moonilal thought there ought to be a minister for development co-operation, who would be accountable to Parliament.

“But they don’t want that, they want to wake up, take a jet to somewhere in the Caribbean and say, ‘$25 million for you,’” he charged.

This was, he claimed, foreign policy by vaps, but actually Mr Manning’s approach has been consistent; as Ms Persad-Bissessar put it, he wants to be the fairy godmother of the Caribbean.

Ms Persad-Bissessar was tempted to appeal to the xenophobia of the citizens of T&T, raising an alarm because the chief immigration officer couldn’t say how many Grenadian schoolchildren had come to this country in the wake of Hurricane Ivan. “The Ministry of Education can’t say how many have been pushed into our schools,” she warned.

But she didn’t press the issue further than that, and the bills were given a swift passage.

The Opposition may merely have been saving its ammunition, however. Next on the order paper is a bill to implement the agreement establishing the Caribbean Court of Justice, which the UNC has made into a major bone of contention.

Mr Gift tactlessly announced on Wednesday that the CCJ would be inaugurated in March next year.

“Oh really?” Ms Persad-Bissessar interjected in icy tones.

The court, went on the oblivious Mr Gift, would have original jurisdiction in matters relating to Caricom.

Ms Persad-Bissessar pretended to think that meant the PNM had changed its position and wanted the CCJ to have only this original jurisdiction. But Mr Manning got up to say no, it would replace the Privy Council as a final court of appeal. And that, if a weary Opposition can gird its loins for the occasion, will be the subject of a full-scale fight.

©2003-2004 Trinidad Publishing Company Limited

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