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Was PM right, or just talking?

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Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves is embroiled in another controversy of sorts regarding remarks he made concerning certain public servants at a symposium for senior public officers held on January 27th, 2009. His comments have drawn both the ire of the Public Service Union and the concern of the Nurses’ Association. They have also been the topic of some callers on radio talk shows.{{more}}

In his hard-hitting address, which news reports him as describing as “pre-meditated,” Dr. Gonsalves called on those public officers, who he said were not pulling their weight, to shape up. He also lamented that many officers are not sufficiently acquainted with Government’s Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure; and said that some of them, like some Parliamentarians, do not fully read the Budget address. This has provoked a sharp response from Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace, who accused the PM of speaking disparagingly about his own cabinet colleagues.

Mr. Eustace charged that if the PM’s statements were true, it speaks volumes of the type of representation offered by government ministers and in the circumstances, called on the Prime Minster to resign.

Storm in a teacup or major public issues? Reactions have been varied on this, but PM Gonsalves has stoutly defended his comments, particularly those related to alleged pilfering at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital. His own take on the matter, aimed at a Press Conference this Tuesday, was that one can argue whether he should have made the comments or not but the issue is “is it true?” Are persons in government employ, including senior ones, really colluding with others in the pilfering of precious medical supplies for private gain?

This allegation is by no means new, having been bandied about for some time now. So is the PM right or wrong to repeat it? Should he have launched an investigation (many such ones have cost us precious time and money with little returns), before making any such comment? And which is the bigger issue, the PM’s own not-so-flippant remarks, or attitudes to work and service to the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines? Our PM has a way of sometimes rubbing people the wrong way, as he is equally prone to charm, but should he, in the face of all the challenges we face, refrain from public rebuke?

As for the accusations of not reading the Budget, then anyone who has followed Parliamentary debate in this country for the past forty years would know that some MPs have been guilty. Not just with the Budget either, debate on ordinary bills before the House often exposes a lack of understanding and knowledge to the extent that one can only conclude that the speaker has read or fully grasped the subject. It happened under Cato, Joshua, Mitchell, Eustace and now Gonslaves.

What is more relevant is how long are we going to tolerate such slacking and slackness. If Prime Minster Gonsalves is only going to talk, then he might as well shut up and seek quiet remedies. But if he is bringing out in the open, then it becomes a public issue for us to dwell on. Berate him if you so please, but let’s get down to brass tacks. Given the challenges facing us, we cannot tolerate half-hearted approaches to public service. Let’s start with our Parliamentarians. The PM knows where the short-comings are, he told us upon re-election that his team will have to shape up? Have they? Is he going to reward slackers, as other administrations did in the past, by allowing them to vie for a third term, and the pensions and gratuities? For if we are not firm at the top, how can we get down to those below?

For years there have been all sorts of allegations about, not petty pilfering, but stealing of state-owned drugs, the abuse of state-owned medical facilities for private gain and the neglect of public patients so private people could benefit. Dr. Gonsalves seemed to be veering in this direction in his comments, mobilizing public concern around it. Well, then, if this is so, action must be taken. At various levels of the public administration there are good and bad actors, fortunately many more good than bad. But as the external climate gets harsher; as survival and thriving become more difficult, we all must become more intolerant of these shortcomings. Exposing them is all well good, but corrective action must follow.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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