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Owning de government

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The opening of the new parliament on December 29th has started a new chapter in the political history of St.Vincent and the Grenadines. A lot has been said about Sir Frederick Ballantyne’s comments in his speech to parliament at the opening of that new session. What was missed was the fact that the speech delivered by the Governor General is not written by him but by the government of the day, mostly I expect by the Prime Minister.{{more}} I suppose that the tradition is that the Governor General is expected to add his personal comments, but the substance of the speech is that presented to him by the government in power. This is an aspect of the Westminster system of government, where the reigning sovereign would start the new session of parliament by reading the speech from the throne. In areas of the commonwealth it is still regarded as the Speech from the Throne and is read by the Governor General or President, depending on which is Head of Government.

We can possibly surmise what might have been added by the Governor General as his personal comments, but we can never be sure. Sir Frederick did indicate that there were “five aspects of the general elections which I personally found to be troubling”, and one can assume that this meant exactly what it said. The appeals for healing, reconciliation and nation building are certainly what the government would want to push, given its narrow victory and the expected challenges the country faces. The Governor General states, “I pray that our people as a whole, at home and abroad, would put partisan political differences behind them and embrace the new period with enthusiasm, resilience and resourcefulness. We are by and large, a good-natured people who love our neighbours and our country. A tiny minority may go astray but the bulk of us mean well and want to do well for ourselves, our families and our country. Let us harness this positive impulse for a better future.’’

Clearly the views expressed and the tone set are admirable in a nation that has been so divided politically. It might be that this call has come too late, for with the close victory and the one seat majority in parliament one expects that both parties would want to keep the fire burning. One of the problems with our country is that there is so little middle ground, so many people who are not prepared to see things as they are, leaving the field open for apologists, bigots and advocates. The ULP wants the people to “Own De Government” as they “owned the campaign”. I am not sure what this really means. It flies in the face of what politics has become in SVG. The politicians own de government and will continue to do so and to brand persons who threaten their ownership as unpatriotic and backward. In fact the ULP column of December 31st made some far-fetched claims. It is of the view that “This is the first ever full scale ‘guerilla’ campaign of an independent and proud people determined to make further progress for their Caribbean civilisation against externally financed backward forces and complicit domestic allies” This is almost like an Anansi tale.

It is always going to be difficult to figure out precisely what made the difference in these elections. As C. I Martin put it, “Much largesse was on offer, from galvanize to computers…” Did this have an impact on the elections? We seem not prepared to deal with this issue. I have never seen anything done as openly and as shamelessly as I have witnessed in the weeks leading up to the elections and also on polling day; trucks loaded with lumber, cement and steel were seen around the country. In all of the vehicles I saw there was always at least one individual with the Red T-shirt of the ruling party. Obviously there are those who think that this still works, and maybe it did. We are quick to praise ourselves for having elections that are “free, fair, inclusive and transparent” and for keeping our democracy alive. But there is much to criticise for as things go these days only parties that are well financed would be able to enter the political arena. Surely the kind of monies that are expected to be spent on election campaigns cannot be generated within the country. Moreover when we speak about being free and fair we are concentrating on what happens on polling day, and surely unlike other countries in other parts of the world, including Africa, things have always gone smoothly on that day. Polling begins on time. People are not prevented from exercising their franchise. So we will always get high marks for our performance on polling day. But how do we treat many of the ills and abuses that take place before polling day? Is the distribution of largesse a necessary aspect of our democracy?

We will for sometime be reflecting on what happened and what might have been. But we have to move on. Most of us expect severe challenges during the year. The question is, how would we cope? The Budget address and debate later this month should send the necessary signals about what to expect. If we are called on to “Own De Government”, we should get some sense of how we are going to begin to exercise that ownership and what space is provided for us to do so. One expects that there will be no more free rides for those who benefitted from these in the past, but we would just have to wait and see. Owning the government must also mean that we must begin to make demand and push for an agenda that embraces the majority of the people in the nation, and not one that is geared to the interests of a segment of the population. It will also be interesting to look at the dynamics in parliament because this could send certain signals to the rest of the population. In any event, even if we are incapable of owning the government we can no longer sit back and hope that things will happen in a particular way. The future of the country depends on how all of us act. There is no one with a magic wand.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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