Sunday 9th September, 2007

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Lame duck MPs from start to finish

Well, there’s far more finesse, this time round, than firing anyone by fax. That had happened in April, 1995, to Hong Kong-based Trinidad and Tobago honorary consul, Alexander Lau, a man of the world, as fluent in Mandarin as he was knowledgeable about French wines.

He also had been a law school classmate of Basdeo Panday.

Life has gone on. Knowlson Gift, then permanent secretary, twice later Foreign Affairs Minister, had signed the fax that axed Mr Lau.

The axe fell on the luckless honorary consul, who had been on vacation in Miami when a mission led by the T&T Prime Minister arrived in Hong Kong.

Penal-born Mr Lau, whose business card emblazoned with the T&T flag was printed in both English and Chinese lettering, hadn’t been slacking.

He simply hadn’t been told the big man was coming.

Tough, fax you, was the response from Port-of-Spain.

Mr Gift has since himself moved on, again. The consumption of human and other resources characterises the operation of political apparatus driven by a leader on the road to somewhere.

Suddenly, last week, all eyes were fixed on this political leader. His own profile has sharpened since 1995.

Minus the spectacles and the vaguely bookish look of the 1995 pre-election period, this is a man with many more pluses.

Patrick Manning, indeed, has so much more going for him, that people who hadn’t been paying attention as he grew from policy nerd into all-powerful Napoleon, have taken to calling him “Emperor.”

In this space last week, I cited a leading T&T artist who had proposed the name, “Emperor Valley Mall,” for the cluster of structures making up the La Fantasie prime ministerial residence.

Emperor Valley is the natural habitat not only of presidents and prime ministers, but also of the botanical gardens and the zoo that carries its name.

The valley, it turns out, even has its own brand of rare butterfly.

Writing then, I hadn’t noticed that the “Emperor” label for Mr Manning had gained wider usage beyond that as a UNC/Alliance term of abuse.

After last week, “Emperor,” I guess, could even turn up as a calypso or an ole mas brand.

If the budget last month had been the occasion for distributing bread to the masses, last week was the time for staging circuses, that other staple of popular sustenance.

And in the breathtaking spectacle being mounted, a lengthening list of least-likely candidates was being fed to the lions.

By Friday, 14 of the 20 who, in September, 2002, had been exalted as “Vision 2020 Ambassadors for Progress” (they happened to be running for seats), were being publicly purged in an exemplary exercise of, well, imperial, power.

Twenty PNM candidates won parliamentary seats on October 7, 2002.

Presenting the slate of 36 candidates, party campaign publicity had used the line, “Forward...Upward Together.”

The last word, “Together,” appeared both italicised and underlined in red.

It’s probably the line the 14 will remember, likely with gallows humour, when five years later, they see their heads mounted against a yellow background in a newspaper display headed, “PNM MPs on the way out.”

The display appeared on Thursday as the three Port-of-Spain dailies scrambled to cover a secret constituency opinion poll whose findings gave pass or failing grades to sitting MPs.

With an election due in the remaining months of 2007, Mr Manning had seized upon the poll results as the basis for sudden-death judgment over parliamentary careers.

Nearly 70 per cent of sitting PNM MPs are lately said to be opting out of future parliamentary service.

As John Rahael, having scored high in the poll, was nevertheless “on the way out,” Newsday queried Mr Manning’s “culling of the ranks of his own parliamentary colleagues.”

As a category, however, elected MPs never did decisively penetrate the Manning-insider ranks.

For each of the 14 now reported in the departure lounge, the Prime Minister had named a non-elected senator.

Mr Manning reserved for the non-elected the portfolios of Attorney General, Finance, National Security, Foreign Affairs, Tourism, Energy, Public Administration, Education, Labour, Culture and Community Development, Local Government and Legal Affairs.

It was made clear early that, for the business of government, elected status didn’t count as any special qualification and, in some cases, mattered not at all.

In their best showing, only eight of the 14 now on the way out ever gained seats in a Cabinet, where they were likely to be overshadowed by senator-ministers exercising power without ever having faced any poll.

Enjoying no principled preferment at the start of the term, the elected MPs are by the end plainly expendable and for the most part easily disposable.

Blood may be on the floor, but it’s not because the discards are all going down fighting.

Caught in the net of the secret poll, Ken Valley is one big fish still beating up. His position, as a minister with two portfolios and as leader of government business in the Lower House, is uniquely anomalous.

Defiantly, Mr Valley notes that in 2002 he had won more votes in Diego Martin Central (10,909) than had Mr Manning in San Fernando East (10,772).

That was then.

But this is now—five years later—when everything since has only aggrandised the clout and the prestige of the political leader and prime minister, at the expense of everyone else.

Like Ken Valley, other MPs may have been doing their own self-assessments. But most conclude, however sadly, that the greater political good (and certainly the lesser risk) is incurred by deferring to a system.

Under this PNM system, the leader grows steadily into a first among unequals; the MPs reduce to the status of lame ducks. Maybe they always were.

In any event, the fax, however used, remains a clunky piece of old technology anyway.

Observe the other ways and means.

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