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Still on that slippery path

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This was another week marked by protests as the Opposition New Democratic Party continued its opposition to the two bills brought before parliament. The airwaves and print media were taken up with the issue, as the country continues its move along a perilous path. Meanwhile, other issues were sidetracked. One would have been expecting more debate on the recently presented budget at a time when the country is going through a slow economic period.{{more}} Business around Kingstown is slow, hotel occupancy in the vital tourism industry is down and the banana industry has been hit another blow with the recent news that came out of Brussels. All of these are serious matters for concern, but conversation around the country was focused on other matters that perhaps needed immediate attention. The debate was about the right to protect freedoms, allegations that the Opposition is trying to replicate the ‘Road Block Revolution’, the view that the Opposition is making a mountain out of a mole hill, and numerous other arguments, some apparently even questioning the right to protest.

The SEARCHLIGHT’s editorial of February 4, did a nice balancing act, and maybe its content truly reflects the caption “Time for Sober Heads”. The point is made that SVG ‘seems to be moving along a dangerous path’. It continues by saying: “The protests by the Opposition outside Parliament last Friday over the passage of two pieces of legislation took us into the realm of high volatility. One careless match, proverbially, and we could have had a veritable social explosion with grave consequences socially, politically, and physically as well.” The movement along the path of high volatility was attributed to a former Parliamentarian ‘virtually storming the gates of the Parliament yard’ and by ‘inflammatory remarks made by some current members of parliament’. The editorial then jumps to suggest that the Opposition ‘is bent on copying the so-called ‘Road Block Revolution’, based perhaps on an allegation about remarks made by some unidentified person(s) that the ULP came to power by unconventional methods, so apparently the NDP is justified in using such unconventional methods to get to power. Was the issue one of getting to power or was it one of ensuring that the bills were not debated or brought before the House?

The editorial asks a very pertinent question “Is it the wisest course of action to have supporters of both parties in such close proximity with each other, especially bearing in mind what happened last week?”This is a question that needed to be asked, for it can perhaps point to who wanted to create chaos by providing an environment in which matters could so easily have gotten out of hand. The editorial then went on to build the argument for the Opposition; “It is only natural, however, that the Opposition would protest against the amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code, especially since the route of private criminal complaints was recently used by them to bring charges against governmental ministers.” It then made a very important point: “The action by the Government in amending the Code can, therefore, be interpreted as self- seeking.” This is so, “even though there is merit in the explanations offered by the Government for the amendments.” Unfortunately, the editorial does not quote or discuss those explanations.

In any event, however, there is the question of timing and the editorial states: “But the ordinary citizen questions the timing. In the current political climate. Does the amendment at this time lend to professed efforts at reconciliation? Does it not have the effect of adding fuel to fire?” It will be interesting to know who is regarded as ‘ordinary citizens’. Would that involve members of both parties or would it apply to people who are considered neutral? I make this point to suggest that we are probably maturing if our ordinary people of whatever political colour dared to stand behind such arguments. The point about the two pieces of legislation being raised at a time when we are talking about reconciliation is really one that needs to be emphasized, for certainly it was adding fuel to fire. The climate for reconciliation has gotten even cloudier.

Next follows the issue of rights being violated by the provision that demands that all criminal complaints must first have the permission of the DPP. The argument here is that the right to review the decision of the DPP remains. But the DPP also has at hand the right to take over and discontinue the private complaint, so why is there need to have an amendment? I would imagine also that there might be a cost factor involved and also a delaying of the process. Then the question is raised as to whether the argument about the abuse of the use of private criminal charges being taken directly to the Magistrate justifies the amendments. I am of the view that so far there has been no convincing argument about the abuse of the system. The editorial states that the whole story must be told, but I note that there is no mention of the retroactive nature of the legislation, which is important to the debate and could be covered under the argument about the self-seeking nature of the legislation. A question is then asked, which I hinted at in an earlier piece, about not having a public debate on the issue before the legislation was taken to parliament.

A section from the editorial allows me to make a point about Tuesday’s demonstration- “One careless match, proverbially, and we could have had a veritable social explosion, with grave consequences socially, politically, and physically as well.” Interestingly, this is very relevant to what happened at Heritage Square on Tuesday last. The use by the police of Fire trucks to block or perhaps to ‘rein’ in the protesters was a recipe for disaster. Whoever authorised that decision need to have their heads examined and are obviously ignorant about ‘crowd psychology’. Fortunately, it did not degenerate into chaos and we have so far not crossed the line. The right to protest must be preserved and nothing must be done to allow peaceful protests to get out of hand. The act of protest carries a message and the Prime Minister has vowed to listen to the people, so let us see how it goes.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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