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Make the small step into a giant leap

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Fri, Jan 13. 2012

Could the small step taken by Prime Minister Gonsalves in Parliament this week turn out to be the catalyst for a giant leap forward in our political practice? This is not just a rhetorical question; it has great bearing on our approach to partisan politics and political behaviour in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.{{more}}

On Wednesday evening (January 11), PM Gonsalves, in the course of an apology to Opposition MP Daniel Cummings for remarks made by Minister of Agriculture Montgomery Daniel, announced that he had instructed his lawyers not to proceed with High Court judgements in his favour in separate defamation suits brought against Cummings himself and Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace.

The Prime Minister has resorted to the courts in a range of libel suits against prominent members of the Opposition and leading activists of their party, the New Democratic Party (NDP). The court has ruled in his favour time and again, imposing financial penalties on the offenders.

However Wednesday’s announcement by Dr. Gonsalves was a surprising turn of events. The Prime Minister later disclosed to SEARCHLIGHT that it was a personal gesture by him in the efforts towards national reconciliation. That reconciliation has been touted since the last, acrimonious general elections of December 2010, and a portfolio of National Reconciliation was even created within one of the Ministries. However, there has been little sign so far of such reconciliation materialising in practice.

In light of this, the announcement of the Prime Minister not to proceed with the judgements is a most positive gesture and an encouraging signal. Given all the talk about national reconciliation, and little action, it is the first tangible step. If it took the PM’s recent trip to Bethlehem to bring it to manifestation, then the visit to that part of the world was well worth it. After all, it was on the road to Damascus that the biblical Saul was transformed to the apostle Paul!

Our country has been suffering greatly for more than a decade from intense partisan political bickering. It has become so intense and ingrained that on both sides of the political spectrum, national interests often are pushed aside in favour of narrow party concerns. Ready access to the airwaves has had the effect of dragging our politics in the gutters rather than lifting the level of the political debate. It is out of this phenomenon that the defamation cases have arisen.

That deterioration in our level of political practice was noted as a primary concern by the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC), established in 2003 and which worked assiduously not only to promote constitutional reform but also to advocate a more inclusive, people-centred and national brand of politics. The CRC had identified one of its three critical overriding objectives as being, “to minimize, if not eliminate altogether, political tribalism from the body politic”. Sadly, the political warriors on both sides set the tone for rejecting this broader approach, and wittingly or unwittingly, contributed to the failure of the constitutional review process.

The political divide has now become a gaping chasm, so wide that it appears that those on one side cannot even hear the words of those on the other. Opposition has been taken to its crudest and most literal form. Blind oppositionism on one side and petty reaction on the other, have become the order of the day. That is the slippery slope on which persons like Minister Daniel slide. His trivialisation of Cummings’ ailment may be euphemistically passed off by his leader as “unfortunate”, but reveals the depths to which we have sunk where partisanship obliterates sensitivity.

In this situation, it is the leaders who must set the example. Dr. Gonsalves has done just that. Even as we congratulate him for it and extend our full support, we appeal to the Opposition to reciprocate. We have an opportunity to turn this small step into a qualitative leap forward in our political practice. Let us not squander it.

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