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Sycophancy and corruption

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Some people took offence at my blanket statement about party supporters being “sycophantic and illiterate” in last week’s column. I apologise for that blanket statement to the people of this country. I want to put the statement in context, something I failed to do last week. Let’s do the math.

Illiteracy is widespread in a small oil-rich economy. According to Alta (the Adult Literacy Tutors Association) that teaches in 52 locations countrywide, some 500,000 of us may be functionally illiterate. That’s almost half of our population. Take this section of the population, add them to the school dropouts and the numbers get higher. What is almost half our population qualified to do? Most of them are qualified to wait, perhaps do a trade, or join a make-work gang to survive.

It’s chilling to think how little else they can do but wait, helplessly, or angrily, to be placated by the parent state (which provides employment, or buys goods and services from over 70 per cent of our population).

This cannot be sustained in a country that already has the tenth highest murder rate globally. What will happen when the money runs out?

But let us not say we were not warned. Former independent senator and past president of the Law Association of T&T Martin Daly, attorney, recently wrote: “At the moment, the current Government is promising to continue unrestrained expenditure on social programmes for which dollars and cents accountability is weak and difficult to trace through the myriad agencies that spend the money.

“Not surprisingly the Opposition can only hint at the need for financial responsibility because Trini lifestyle assumes that good times will always roll. Lack of serious concern for the future is a normal feature of our general elections. However serious commentators on the economy have detailed the downturn in oil and gas revenues and the use of capital to sustain the good times. We have a Carnival costume economy, that is, spend plenty cash on declining material.”

Now, take our tribal, winner-takes-all Westminster system, which lacks checks and balances (such as an enforced procurement legislation which could mean that up to 20 billion dollars or ten-12 per cent of our GDP is going down the drain).

What do you create? Sycophancy and corruption. The recent reports of how easily money was allegedly siphoned off the State in the Life Sport programme, headed by the former minister Anil Roberts, is an example.

When a people depend on the State or party to provide them with an income, it means that we are disenfranchised. It’s like telling a grown son or daughter who lives at home, is fed, clothed, housed, and financially dependent on the parent, okay, now go and be loyal to another family or, be independent. Too late. The child is already crippled by dependency. Our politics has made the State our parents. Those of us who follow blindly, who, without studying a manifesto, (blithely unaware of the role of the State to provide sustainable development (jobs), security, education, health, housing, strong institutions) go in busloads to support various leaders dressed in yellow or black, are waving a flag as if to a parent ‘look at me, I showed up, I'm a good boy or girl. Now, will you support me? That is, give me a little money, or contract nah.'

I don’t know what kind of politics that creates. I know for sure it doesn’t create a strong, independent population that can lobby for, and legitimately ask for an account of every penny of their tax dollars. The State creates up to 70 per cent employment in this Trinidad. That figure is higher for Tobago. That’s why I referred to supporters who have not had a chance to study various manifestos or the track record of political nominees as sycophantic. They are compelled, thrust into this position as they have no other choice if they want to survive. So they are rounded up, hoarded like sheep in buses to show support, to make up the numbers for the photographers. The not so subliminal message is 'come, be part of the winning side.'

That brings me to, as I see it, some points of hope in T&T.

The first is civil society. Someone once said we have among the highest number of NGOs worldwide. I have seen their work first-hand. They help children in remote areas, neglected teens in hotspot urban areas, with autistic children, with battered women, with the disabled. The list goes on and on. We all suspect they are doing the work that the State should be doing.

The second is the middle class. Gate, free tertiary education is the best thing that the State has done for this country. This means that despite the high numbers of functional illiteracy, substantial pockets of professionals, lawyers, economists, doctors, accountants are qualifying each year. Businessmen are doing well. The alleged ‘box drain’ contracts awarded by governments which cut up a large contract into many small bits has allowed cash to filter down and spread. A reasonably strong middle class is the backbone of our society and it seems to be holding up, for now.

The third point of hope is that as Timothy Hamel-Smith said, “Young people are moving away from race-based politics. The two bases are shrinking. The middle is growing. Political parties have to be alive to society. If they see the base in the middle growing they have to change.” Whatever the outcome of the September 7 election, we know for sure that a large section of the population will feel disenfranchised. That’s why the first task of the new government must be constitutional reform.


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