Sunday 24th December, 2006

 
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Did the UNC blunder on bail?

The events in the Parliament last week provided the population with an opportunity to see how our system of government is in dire need of reform.

At a time when the nation is facing serious dilemmas about violent crime, the political process is under pressure to function in a manner that would allow it to work in the interests of the wider society.

The fact that the Government chose to allow the clock to run out on the sunset legislation Bail Act must be viewed as irresponsible, given the severity of the issue facing the society.

According to Attorney General John Jeremie, the Bail Act had been a deterrent against kidnapping.

Well, if that was so, why did the Government wait until the very last minute to bring to Parliament the bill to extend its life?

One can debate whether it was the legislation itself that caused a decrease in kidnappings for ransom, but it seems that the Government believes this, which makes the delay even more baffling.

With the split in the Opposition ranks, what emerged were two views. In the end, it was the Congress of the People (COP) that stole the show by giving essential support to the bill at the final stage of voting in the House of Representatives.

The United National Congress (UNC) chose to oppose the extension of the life of the act, on the ground that the Government had failed to honour its commitment to bring various pieces of legislation to Parliament as part of an arrangement that was worked out last year, when the only political parties represented in the House of Representatives were the People’s National Movement (PNM) and the UNC.

One can understand the position adopted by the UNC, on the ground that it was prepared to make the Government pay a political price for its failure to bring the agreed legislative package to Parliament within the one-year period.

The challenge was whether to permit a short extension, or to give no extension at all.

On this score, the UNC caucus decided to vote against the extension bill, while the COP caucus decided to vote for a 90-day extension, with conditions attached.

By this move, the COP seized control of the anti-kidnapping agenda by chastising the Government for its irresponsible delay, and stole a march on the UNC by offering temporary protection to a citizenry that has become wary of this recurring menace.

The main support base of the UNC has been the East Indian population, who also happen to be the ones who are suffering the most—based on the statistical data—from the scourge of kidnapping.

Why would the UNC not seek an extension of the legislation which could only benefit the heartland of their support base?

One does not know what must have gotten into the UNC caucus to decide to issue a party whip to its MPs to vote against the bill.

Winston Dookeran got an opportunity to redeem himself after the budget fiasco, earlier this year, by taking a very statesmanlike approach to the extension of the legislation.

In many respects, he acted just the opposite of the nickname that was given to him by Basdeo Panday.

It was not long (just a few hours) before the UNC frontline was attacking him for selling out to the PNM.

The debate about whether or not the COP Members of Parliament should have voted with the Government is difficult to swallow, if it is cast in terms of selling out to the PNM, when a matter of such severity in the eyes of the East Indian community was being addressed.

However, the effect of this issue is far greater than just the East Indian community. It is a national scourge. It appears that the UNC may have made a tactical blunder in deciding to oppose the extension.

This will become another public relations exercise in three months’ time, when the postponed sunset legislation will come up for debate in the Parliament again.

The Government will have to decide if it is going to bring the agreed package of legislation to Parliament between now and late March, seeing that we are now entering an election year.

At that time, the COP will have the opportunity to decide if it will grant support or withhold it for any further extension.

The challenge for the UNC will be to decide if it will change its mind from its current principled position of refusing to extend the legislation, or stick to it.

The effect of crime on the national psyche and the need for draconian legislation to deal with institutional shortcomings involving the responses of the State to criminal activity will make this the No 1 political issue in 2007.

The example of St Lucia is still fresh in many minds. In T&T, however, the opposition is split between the UNC and the COP (which was not the case in St Lucia).

Given the nature of the electoral system in T&T, a split vote between these two parties could lead to a PNM majority emerging if the marginal constituencies (of which there are ten for the next general election) all split down the middle between the UNC and the COP.

At the same time, news reports have emerged in recent days suggesting that there was an internal plot against the Minister of Housing, Dr Keith Rowley, to have him removed as the PNM candidate for Diego Martin West in the next general election.

If these news reports are true, then one can safely say that the country is in for a most interesting election year.

Political intrigue, political turmoil and political responses to violent crime, in a setting of new constituency boundaries and an enlarged Parliament, will provide the nation with a complete meal for digestion, or indigestion as the case may be.

Merry Christmas to all!

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