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A serious case of 'Blue-light-itis'
Posted: Wednesday, October 12, 2011

By Derren Joseph
October 12, 2011

Memories of an experience I had years ago were stirred as I read media excerpts of what is purported to be the minutes of a board meeting in which the line minister to a Special Purpose State Enterprise (SPSE) is alleged to have pressured the board to promote one person whom they thought unqualified and to fire another, whom they thought had done no wrong. Again, while this is unfortunate, it certainly is not new. For those who may not have seen the story, the leaked minutes went on to say that the chairman of the SPSE is alleged to have stepped down on principle and one board member is alleged to have reminded the rest that they were all political appointees. This part in particular really got me thinking. If a government is expected to deliver on promises, it must have the freedom to appoint those whom they believe will deliver.

I remember after the Obama victory, reading about all the back room wheeling and dealing by those who hoped to be appointed to certain choice positions in the new administration. I would expect that this is not too different from what happened in tiny Trinidad and Tobago as well, after the PP Government's 2010 victory. In my opinion, it becomes a serious issue, when decisions are made which are not in the best interest of the ultimate shareholder. In the case of a SPSE, the shareholder has to be law-abiding, tax-paying citizens like you and me. Citizens who understand the need to defer to a political agenda but at the same time, we ask that principles of good governance be observed and concepts such as transparency and proper accountability be remembered.

I have been told however, that I tend to be too idealistic at times—almost naive. One of my friends who is deeply entrenched in party politics likes to tell me that there is no such thing as being balanced. There is no fence on which you can perch—it is only "us and them!" I have another friend who does see herself as balanced and who enjoys the view from the "fence." She was the one who first explained to me that among board members, some CEOs and many ministers, there is a disease called "Blue-light-itis." Apparently, symptoms include a craving for all-inclusive fete tickets paid for by the company, feeling depressed if one is not invited to the right cocktail parties, and intense feelings of euphoria when one sees oneself in the society pages of the daily newspapers knocking glasses with the "right" crowd.

Confused, I enquired about the origin of the name "Blue-light-itis," and she explained that this disease manifests itself more acutely in ministers. Especially after the first time they are accorded a police escort while being chauffeur driven, and the police vehicle first flashes its blue lights. After this first ride, for many, there is no return to terra firma for at least five years, until an early election is called, or until there is a Cabinet re-alignment that sees them "wine to the side." In Trinidad, the worst possible profession to have is that of a former politician. At 38, I may be relatively young, but I am old enough to have seen many of the mighty fall from their once lofty heights.

I have heard the story of many a former MP who had to sell their car and/or their home—even the tale of one who was embarrassed in a gas station when the attendant went over the requested amount, and he had no extra funds to settle the gas bill. I have heard of former CEOs who are not just unemployed but now probably unemployable. There are so many former board members now depressed over no longer having a Priority Bus Route pass for their cars, or over investigations by subsequent boards into their conduct. It must be so hard to imagine (while delirious due to the onset of Blue-light-itis) that the good times cannot last forever. If so, then perhaps those in positions of trust would behave differently and do whatever was needed to manage the symptoms of their Blue-light-itis.

From what I can observe, these days it seems as if SPSEs are constantly in the media for all the wrong reasons. Chairmen and other board members, please remember that this is about serving the people and that your positions will not last forever. My name is Derren Joseph and I love my country and I love my region. Despite its challenges, I have the audacity of hope in the future of our beloved nation.

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