Sunday 1st May, 2005

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Time for Panday to really reach out

Amid renewed calls from public bodies for the Government to re-introduce the Police Reform Bills, Opposition Leader Basdeo Panday has re-affirmed his opposition to them. He is objecting on the spurious grounds that the measures are designed to put more power in the hands of politicians.

Too much power in the hands of politicians? Based on this premise, Panday is demanding constitution reform as a pre-condition for United National Congress (UNC) support for any such measures.

This is a mantra that the Opposition Leader has been repeating ad nauseam. But he is always careful to avoid taking the people into his confidence by providing us with details of his constitution reform proposals. How else would the country be able to determine whether he has the answers or even the insights that would assist us in realising acceptable outcomes?

Mr Panday chooses instead to appeal to our fears hoping to arouse the basest instincts of his supporters.

Thus, clearly hoping to inflame their emotions, Mr Panday told his audience last Monday, at the Orange Valley Community Centre, that constitution reform must address the country’s problems of racism, discrimination, abuse of power, injustice and integrity. “I would rather die,” Panday said, “than live like a third-class citizen in my own country.”

If Mr Panday was seeking to goad his audience into some kind of reaction, he did not succeed. Their deadpan facial expressions, seen on television, suggested he was not reaching them. Therein lies the true magnitude of Basdeo Panday’s problem. He no longer seems able to connect with his party supporters.

This was succinctly stated in a letter to the editor: “I represent a growing number of voters of a certain ethnic and age bracket, namely 20-something to 30-something Indo-Trinidadians. I have spoken to a lot of people in my age group, who say they are all totally disheartened with the Leader of the Opposition and will not vote for him or not vote at all in the next general election.

“Mr Panday, are you so blind or too self-centered to see that the people need a change in the leadership of the UNC? Surely you have noticed the dwindling crowds and the absence of younger people at your community meetings?

“You see, Mr Panday, when I cannot walk the streets without fear or drive my car without looking in the rear view mirror constantly, it bothers me; and my hope of having this resolved shrinks every day you remain at the helm of the Opposition.

“I beg of you, do the honourable thing and discharge (sic) your duties to a more responsible leader who thinks with his heart and mind and not his mouth. Please give us a chance. Do you love your country or just yourself?”

Mr Panday’s leadership is now being seen as tired and exhausted, devoid of fresh ideas. He consistently rehashes old vituperations. He is evidently prepared to sacrifice his constituency’s interests, his party’s interests, the national interest for his own selfish personal benefit.

By becoming so predictable, Mr Panday has become a boring turn-off, who has no compunction about holding the country to ransom. He is the opportunist politician sans pareil. This is why he gloats over crime without feeling himself under any obligation, whether as citizen or leader of the Opposition (Parliamentarian), to be part of the solution.

Mr Panday can be expected to dismiss the letter writer quoted above. Already he has ignored both Mr Yetming, who obviously sees him as an albatross around the neck of the UNC, and the business organisations, which have been publicly adding their voices to the growing demand for Parliament to enact the Police Reform Bills, so alarmed are they at the growing incidence of crime.

Mr Panday’s response was to attack some of the businessmen last Monday for being in league with the kidnappers, whom he alleged they once hired as debt collectors to do for them what they (kidnappers) are now doing for themselves—extorting money.

The public, quite correctly, is looking to the Government for answers. Prime Minister Manning must never throw up his hands in despair, as then Prime Minister Panday did when he acknowledged his impotence to solve the crime problem.

Security Minister Martin Joseph is right. Citizens are making tremendous demands on the Police Service as the institution possessing the basic responsibility for protecting and serving them. But the Service has to be reformed if it is to be made more responsive. This is Parliament’s responsibility.

When the UNC and People’s National Movement parliamentarians set the police reform process in motion, then PM Panday and his MPs accepted this responsibility unconditionally.

Ultimately, the population, particularly those groups that feel themselves specially targeted, will judge harshly those politicians who are now deliberately frustrating an agreed police reform process merely to satisfy the whims of a political leader on whose career the sun is inevitably setting.

Panday’s argument that the bills put too much power in the hands of politicians seeks to justify his obstructionism. This has not been an issue in T&T’s post-Independence political experience. The country’s institutional arrangements have always been able to address such concerns consistent with our constitutional arrangements.

Our courts have always restrained the political executives whenever they have exceeded their powers, whether deliberately or inadvertently. Confidence in our judiciary has never been a political issue. Even the current issue involving the Chief Justice demonstrates the availability of recourse.

Nowhere is power absolute.

The UNC has no valid reason for reneging on its prior unconditional commitment to Police Service reform. Bring back the bills now. The people will judge their MPs’ commitment to nation.

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