If you have Betty Davis eyes, by which I mean to say wonderful to behold eyes that see naught that is not superficial, chances are you perceived Tuesday’s televised House meeting as just another brazen insult to the intelligence of a nation—72 percent of whose workforce are too dumb to access available jobs. At any rate, by our erudite prime minister’s scholarly measure.
On Monday, via Facebook, he had posted the following notice: “Tomorrow, Tuesday, February 10, 2015, the Constituency Boundaries Commission Report will be laid in parliament. It was a joint report of the Government and the Opposition. The Government was represented by its general secretary [sic] Leo Clarke and city mayor and attorney-at-law Mrs. Shirley Lewis.
“The Opposition was represented by former High Commissioner to London Mr. Eldridge Stephens and attorney-at-law Mrs. Leone Theodore-John. The Speaker of the House Peter Foster QC served as chairman, as mandated by our Constitution. The report, duly approved and signed by all its members, recommends that the number of constituencies be increased from 17 to 21.”
In his FB post the prime minister undertook, “as required by our Constitution,” to give “the reasons for the modifications proposed by the commission.”
Additionally: “We can of course go down in history as a mature democracy or alternatively disintegrate into a fractious partisan debate. We shall see. But I bet that despite the fact that there was consensus by both political parties on the number of seats and their boundaries, there will be those who will shout ‘gerrymandering.’ And you want to bet that those who know better, who know their representatives subscribed too, will encourage it?”
Following a long and winding statement on Tuesday morning the prime minister lowered himself into his upholstered leather chair, doubtless in anticipation of the usual Game of Drones.
The first MP to hit his red light was the Castries Central representative, in another time described by the prime minister and his echo-lytes in terms normally associated with drunk and disorderly sailors and street-corner hookers. SInce the fall-outs from the Chastanet take-over of the UWP, however, Frederick’s presentations in parliament and his mode of delivery have been marked by jaw-dropping erudition. Every word from his gilded mouth has been greeted by his former enemies with endorsing ear-to-there smiles, raucous belly laughs, over-acted affirmative nods and general irrational exuberance, as if indeed he were Cicero returned. As I say, on Tuesday Richard Frederick was smooth. He was concise. Most of the time he made sense. He sounded caring. But best of all he proved himself of our time—not a fig-leafed throwback.
He underscored the fact that we are all caught up in the mother of all nightmares, forced as we are to borrow to pay the interest on our debilitating debts—unable anymore even to contemplate, as John Compton had put it in the late 80s, “paying for peace with the public service.”
He hinted at recent self-serving confessions by the prime minister that incessant mindless borrowing had taken us down, so that our camel backs could easily break under the weight of a vulture’s feather. He read the section of the Constitution that demands periodic assessments of the constituency boundaries, underscoring en-route that nothing in what he had read dictated an increase in the present number of constituencies. Indeed, he suggested the prime minister would be better advised to reduce by nine the number of government ministers and return to the people the right to elect community residents to serve as local-government officials.
It occurred to me as Frederick masterfully delivered his self-absolving piece (and also during the prime minister’s blustery presentation) that in 1979 the horse-and-buggy framers of our revised Constitution could not possibly have anticipated life as we know it today.
While the prime minister had on Tuesday suggested, regardless of cost, that “incredible challenges” awaited if the number of constituencies remained at seventeen, the Central Castries MP disagreed, on the sound basis that social media had changed the way we live, to the extent that MPs in their offices or even when off-island could easily stay in touch with constituents.
Less than twenty-four hours earlier, on Newsspin, the prime minister’s secretary for all seasons was singing a similar song: that in our brave new world it was easily possible to access millions via Facebook, Whatsapp, BB, Twitter etcetera—to say nothing of the TVs and the radios in every mansion, shack and cranny.
Alas, the parliamentarian I had once described in a fit of euphoria as “the most informed member of the House” on Wednesday struck me as a voice that deserved to be banished to the wilderness. He spoke seemingly for an eternity about the lions and the lambs that had bedded down together in the good name of bi-partisanship.
What the MP for Castries Southeast boldly suggested, without proffering the smallest bit of evidence, was startling: that the two individuals who had been meticulously chosen by the Leader of the Opposition to give voice to its beliefs and policies may have failed in their purpose for lack of resources; nevertheless they had, without complaint, signed the report. That and other related inanities would soon result in a deluge of pigeon poop all over the MP’s face.
The deputy prime minister, Philip J. Pierre really ought to give serious consideration to a comedy act also starring his leader. Then again, there are those who say Pierre had already gone further than merely contemplating such a proposition. He talked yet again of the levels to which politicians of the other party had stooped to score cheap points; he expressed great surprise at transparent opposition attempts to mislead the people—all of that in characteristic falsetto, most of the time prompted by the prime minister.
“Mr. Speaker,” he went on, “we must stop these flashing mirrors in this country.” The MP saw flashing mirrors under every opposition bed, judging by the number of times he has made public use of George Odlum’s borrowed phrase.
Pierre assured the House and the nation via TV that the last thing on his mind as he considered the boundary changes was partisan politics. And yes, he said that with a face as straight as was Bill Clinton’s when he famously denied he’d ever had “sexual relations with that woman . . .”
By the MP’s high-pitched account he could hardly believe his ears when the Castries Southeast representative issued his disparaging comments about the two upstanding citizens specially chosen by the Leader of the Opposition to sit on the boundaries commission. (This writer was reminded of Lloyd Benson’s famous uppercut to the ego of his fellow vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle: “Jack Kennedy was my friend . . . Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy!”)
The Castries East MP said he knew intimately both Leone Theodore-John and Eldridge Stevens and, well, they deserved better from their party colleagues. Conceivably with the sound of violins in his ears, Pierre recalled the first mentioned, a lawyer, had served as President of the honorable Saint Lucia Senate. As for Stevens, he had been an ambassador in the UK! I formed the impression that Pierre believed an individual’s integrity was wholly dependent on the political positions nepotistically handed him, not necessarily on how he or she had performed their assignments.
I, too, have known Leone Theodore-John a long time, long enough to know infallibility was never among her gifts. Indeed, it was while she was senate president that Section 41 of the Finance Act was amended to read like gibberish—as the present prime minister had admitted during last year’s “belated guarantees” episode. We need not place Eldridge Stevens under the microscope. He is human, therefore as vulnerable as the rest of us to lapses and infelicities.
The holiest man in the House openly confessed that he was not altogether delirious about what had been proposed for his Castries South constituency, then dutifully admitted the proposal was not without merit.
I knew not whether to laugh or cry when Emma Hippolyte gave her blessing to the boundary changes proposed for Gros Iset. She recalled what the Castries Central MP had said concerning social media but clearly she remains unimpressed by smart phones and the like. Strictly old school is our Aunty Emma.
“I know in the local context what constituents want is not just to see you on TV. What they want,” she said, “is to meet and feel you!” Feel you? Was Aunty Emma serious? Then came her own forty lashes for the Castries Southeast horse, already flogged to death. Addressing Guy Joseph directly (contrary to House rules), the Gros Islet MP said: “We need to raise the bar. Commit yourself to make a change.”
She revealed with touching sincerity that she had prayed for a Road to Damascus change to come over Guy Joseph, evidently to no avail. (The writer couldn’t help wondering how hard she had prayed for a change in the gambling habits of Saint Lucians, the young especially, many of whom appear addicted to VLTs).
The former prime minister Stephenson King explained what conceivably Aunty Emma had tried to convey when she said her constituents were not satisfied with just seeing her on TV. By all King said, splitting up the constituencies would bring relief to MPs such as himself who lacked the resources to pay for and personally deliver to the constituents such items as refrigerators, barrels of liquor, TVs, laptops, mortgages, school fees and school books.
It came as no surprise when our prime minister condescendingly endorsed all Aunty Emma and King had said in the abused name of “proper representation.”
Of course, those of us still able to think for ourselves knew full well the true purpose for cutting up constituency boundaries at this time. It had nothing to do with any great need on the part of parliamentary representatives to allow each and every one of their constituents a “feel.” (As I write, the Privy Council has directed that the St. Kitts-Nevis government hold imminent elections with the boundaries unchanged!)
The prime minister let the cat out of the bag, perhaps, when he said parliamentary reps were often confronted by reprimanding constituents who said in Creole: “Nous paka wer zot encore!” (“We don’t see you anymore!”) This was the disgruntled constituent’s way of expressing how he or she felt about being used at election time and then discarded until the next poll.
Whatever the Constitution might say about constituency boundaries, it also offers the means by which imbalances might fairly and usefully be addressed. In any event, to say that twenty MPs would guarantee better representation than, say, half that number, all things considered, is worse than specious. Proper parliamentary representation has little to do with numbers. It has everything to do with caring.
What Saint Lucians first and foremost want and need—and I don’t just refer to particular constituencies—is that the Constitution, yes, the Constitution, be respected. Keeping poor Saint Lucians locked up at Bordelais for years without trial is contrary to the dictates of the Constitution. Secret deals between government ministers and foreign businessmen speak not for proper representation; only corruption. Neither does official nepotism. Permitting our justice system to mock the Constitution is a crime against proper representation. I could go on.
Fixing what clearly is broken and contributing to already intolerable crime figures does not require additional ministers. It requires that those we already have demonstrate some interest in the people’s welfare.
The arguments about cost so far proffered are sufficiently transparent as not to merit space in this already lengthy article. Finally this: on Tuesday the prime minister and his echo-lytes ranted on and on about the last attempt to balance the constituency numbers. It had been countless years since the boundaries commission got together. Actually, I remember quite well the last meeting of the boundaries commission—better described as a carnival—convened at the House under the chairmanship of Speaker St. Clair Daniel. At some uproarious point Mario Michel, one of the SLP’s two representatives, raised eyebrows island-wide. This was how he explained his behavior to reporters: When he realized the UWP side, including the once disfranchised Daniel, were determined, regardless of opposition views, to vote in favor of the proposed boundary adjustments, he did what he had to do, and would do “no less in the future to stop the rape of the Constitution by persons bent on having their own way.”
He admitted he had turned over a table while a meeting was in progress, at which point, he said, chairman Daniel quickly shoved his hand in his pocket and gripped “something distinctly shaped like a firearm.” Michel said Daniel had moved toward him “in a manner most threatening.”
As for Tom Walcott, recalling the moment in a letter to the governor general, the SLP chairman admitted that in all his “years of private and public business never had he been put in such fear for his life.”
Later, at a rally in William Peter Boulevard, the prime minister John Compton said: “While we build, they break glass.” He was referring to reports that at a crucial point during the last meeting of the boundaries commission an angry Julian Hunte had barged into the room and smashed a glass window.
Still later, and with just two or three days before Polling Day, the prime minister again referred to the glass-breaking incident at a public meeting in Gros Islet. He described Hunte, the district representative and SLP leader, as “a public nuisance.” Hunte was in the audience, barely three feet from Compton’s microphone.
His reaction as it came over the speakers was loud and clear: “The next time I break glass it’ll be in your ass!”
Suffice it to say charges were later laid against Hunte for “damage to public property.” Lorraine Williams, now a judge in St. Kitts-Nevis, presided over the circus that passed for a court hearing. Talk about fractious debates. Oh yes, the Labour Party knew a whole lot about that.
Of course, no one remembered the episode that might’ve explained why so many years had passed since last a boundaries commission convened in Saint Lucia. But then, what’s new?
At the most recent meeting of the boundaries commission the UWP never bothered even to put up proposals of their own. Whatever their secret misgivings, their two hand-picked commissioners affixed their approving signatures to the commission’s report. Is it any wonder they sounded on Tuesday like a flock of lost sheep in desperate search of a Little Bo Peep?