40th anniversary of 1981 bills:
As St Vincent and the Grenadines entered the last two weeks of May 1981, it was a veritable cauldron, seething and bubbling with dissatisfaction and unrest. Seven trade unions had met on May 18 to form a united front to mobilize the public to fight to stop two dread pieces of legislation tabled in Parliament by the government, the Essential Services (Amendment) Bill and the Public Safety and Public Order Bill.
The government had its back forced against the wall and its resort to legal repression only made matters worse. The joint trade union body, called the Committee in Defence of Democracy (CDD) was strongly supported in its mobilisation efforts by the United People’s Movement (UPM), which despite its setback in the 1979 elections had become the most effective political opposition to the governing Labour Party. Then, to make matters worse, respected local barrister Mr. Henry Williams resigned from the post as Chairman of the Public Service Commission (PSC).
Just as it appeared that things couldn’t get any worse, they did. On May 20, 1981, Health Minister Randolph Russell, a Labour stalwart since his defection from Joshua’s PPP in the late sixties, dealt the government a crippling blow by submitting his resignation from it. The reasons given were quite damning and I crave your indulgence for deviating from the coverage on the Bills protest to quote from Russell’s letter. The quotes provide clarity on the context of the times.
Russell opened his resignation letter to P.M. Cato by stating, “I am not satisfied with the progress being made in St. Vincent and the Grenadines”. He then began to specify, charging that the Labour party was “not functioning”; that “Legislators do not meet in caucus to discuss the general development of the country” and accusing the Prime Minister of disregarding the views of his Ministers.
He went even further, describing the country as being “in a chaotic situation”; stating that “law and order has gone to the dogs”, that “our port has become internationally notorious and insurance companies are now reluctant to insure goods coming to St. Vincent”.
He castigated the growing number of state-owned enterprises for inefficiency and mismanagement and charged that there was a lack of accountability. Interestingly, Mr. Russell made a comment on air transportation which I quote here in full:
“Our airport needs relocating if we are to accommodate larger planes and to make it safe for landing, as regardless of how much money we spend to lengthen the airstrip, it is not going to change it from a downwind takeoff to an upwind one and no large hotel is going to come in. No real tourist development will take place.”
This is a tribute to Russell’s vision for development. Yet almost two decades after, the Mitchell government was flying in the face of all commonsense by proposing to lengthen Arnos Vale airport.
The resignation letter merely added more fuel to an already explosive situation. Mass demonstrations of unprecedented size were to follow.