T&T politics: A new direction?

By Colin Rickards

TORONTO, Canada, September 30, 2010 – In Through The Political Glass Ceiling former journalist Kris Rampersad has written of and about the Caribbean’s newest Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar of Trinidad and Tobago. 

The 444-page book, somewhat quaintly subtitled “Race to Prime Minister by Trinidad and Tobago’s First Female,” takes the form of Selected Speeches by Persad-Bissessar during her political career, and in the run-up to the election which brought her the post of Prime Minister in the People’s Partnership Government.

These are presented with an Introduction and Contexts and Analyses by Rampersad, and virtually track Persad-Bissessar’s long and distinguished political career. Her final romp — from Leader of the United National Congress (UNC) in January, to Leader of the Opposition the following month, to Prime Minister on May 24 — was nothing short of astonishing.

Rampersad’s premise that multiculturalism matters to Trinbagonians, and that too many people were shut out from the governing process, is sound, and explains Persad-Bissessar’s success in bringing four other parties into her United National Congress fold as members of the People’s Partnership — which the author engagingly described to me as “not a coalition of parties, rather a coalition of interests.”

Among the frailties of coalition governments the world over — and vividly demonstrated in several of the small Parliaments of the Eastern Caribbean during the past three decades and more — is that “floor crossing” can be fatal for any administration.

The People’s Partnership secured 29 of the 41 seats in Parliament — with 59 per cent of the votes — and Persad-Bissessar is fortunate in that the UNC has the majority of the 29, so “floor crossing,” or resignations, while they would reduce her majority, would not bring down her government.

Speaking at a dinner at the Red Pepper restaurant in Pickering two weeks ago, author and political analyst Rampersad talked of the perceived inadequacy of the Whitehall Model of a two-party, First-Past-The-Post electoral system, which “was imposed upon us” by the British Government ant the time of Independence.

Trinidad and Tobago celebrated its 48th birthday on August 31, but I still have vivid memories of covering the Independence Conference in London on behalf of The Trinidad Guardian. So I rather felt that “imposed” was an unfair word, as Dr. Eric Williams and his delegation arrived well prepared. They knew what they had come to get — and they got it.

The Opposition, led by eminent mathematician Dr. Rudranath Capildeo, was not well organized — even though it included some of his party’s luminaries — and more or less let Williams and his band of merry men run all over them.

(I never understood how it was seen as remotely sensible or acceptable for Capildeo — who taught at the University of London — to also be Leader of the Opposition, seeing that for substantial portions of the year he wasn’t even in Trinidad and Tobago to attend to that business, because he was in London involved in scholastic endeavours.)

It is clear that the British favoured the Whitehall Model, but as they were prepared little more than a year later to propose Proportional Representation for British Guiana (BG), I doubt that there would have been much resistance from the Colonial Office if Capildeo had asked for it at the conference.

There would, however, have been great resistance from Williams, proof of which is found in relatively recently declassified British Cabinet documents, some of which Jamaica-born historian Colin Palmer made public in his exceptional book Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean.

When the proposal for BG was first mooted, the British asked Williams for his views on the idea. He responded that he supported it — but would make no public statement, pro or con, because ethnically Trinidad and Tobago had much the same make-up as BG, and he did not wish to make political difficulties for himself at home.

At least one school of thinking, in the wake of Persad-Bissesswar’s electoral win, is that Proportional Representation might soon be explored for Trinidad and Tobago, and I have no doubt that it will be.

There is no doubt that the Whitehall Model does have frailties, and while the British still have the First-Past-The-Post system, their Parliament has not be a two-party one for quite some time, the current government being a coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Questions about Proportional Representation are bound to arise in Britain, too.

It needs very careful consideration, and much can be learned from a study of the Parliaments around the world which are elected by First-Past-the-Post or Proportional Representation, or partly by both. Israel’s Parliament has been weakened by it, Germany’s generally strengthened.

Rampersad was bold enough to publish her book three weeks before Trinidad and Tobago’s general election, and it will certainly provide political pundits with much fodder, as Persad-Bissessar and her colleagues try to revitalize the nation and live up to their election promises.

Interesting, too, Through The Political Glass Ceiling is slated to be the cornerstone of a whole new publishing venture, as the money Rampersad earns from it will be ploughed back into a company which she will launch to publish non-fiction and fiction.

The idea has apparently been praised by Persad-Bissessar, who has complained publicly that there are far too many books around which provide “negative depictions of our society.” Rampersad’s venture may well be helped by the fact that the new government — at least from what one can read in their first budget last week — appears likely to be ready to pay considerably more attention to Arts and Culture than was ever the case with their many predecessors.

Rampersad’s new publishing house does not have a name yet — though she has one in mind — but she says she has identified a number of “excellent” manuscripts.

Reprinted with permission of caribbeancamera.com

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