By Raffique Shah
May 22, 2011
THE suspension of ex-prime minister Patrick Manning from the House last week triggered a national debate that is curious, to say the least. I think the penalty imposed on the nation’s longest serving MP was somewhat harsh. But I also hold that Manning is a “harden fella”, not unlike another ex-prime minister, Basdeo Panday, who was also suspended three years ago, but who rushed to Manning’s defence—something I find quite amusing.
The People’s Partnership members of the House voted to adopt the report of the Privileges Committee, and further, to have Manning suspended with immediate effect, presumably for the remainder of this session of Parliament, which is due to end sometime in June. What this means is that Manning would lose a few months’ pay, which, really, is no big loss for the well heeled. As for his constituents losing representation in the process, well, that’s questionable.
Ever since he misled the PNM to its Carapichaima, if not Waterloo, almost one year to the day, Manning seems to have taken some mysterious oath of silence. He hardly ever speaks. When he does, one wonders if he is not condescending, merely toying with lesser mortals, doing members of the House a favour.
I remember well the Friday he made allegations about Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s $150 million mansion. I was navigating some backroads out of Central on my way to Port of Spain, cussing Works Minister Jack Warner for not warning motorists about major works on the Hochoy Highway. I listened to the news via radio, so I could not see the photograph Manning displayed in the House with flourish.
The following day, in the newspapers, I saw the photograph. My immediate reaction was if PM Kamla and her husband paid $150 million for that “spread”, they must have installed gilded fixtures or they were robbed blind! It did not take an expert to guess that the mansion, though impressive, could hardly cost more than $5 million. For readers not-in-the-know, I need add that paying $5 million to $10 million for luxury apartments or homes is not uncommon among the wealthy.
Clearly, in his bid to drop a bombshell in the House, Manning instead held a grenade from which he had pulled the pin and released the lever: it would blow up in his face. Not surprisingly, PM Kamla came to the House armed with data that disproved Manning’s wild allegations. The ex-PM should have apologised to his successor and to the House at that stage. He did not. Instead, he allowed the issue to go before the Committee of Privileges. He refused to attend the Committee’s hearings, choosing instead to take the matter before the courts.
The end-shot was that Partnership members of the House, sensing they could both humiliate their one-time tormentor and seek revenge for Basdeo Panday’s suspension in 2008, decided to invoke suspension. Now, Manning’s colleagues are crying foul. In this country’s one-upmanship politics, both positions were not unexpected. Manning sees an opportunity to make himself a martyr of sorts, and the Partnership parliamentarians gloat over humbling him.
The bacchanal had just begun. With my colleagues in the media chasing “angles” to the story, many of them turned to Panday. In recent times, he has become a thorn in the Partnership’s backside. He condemned the Government for stifling opposition in and outside of Parliament. He suggested that an apology from Manning could have resolved the issue without having to resort to “archaic regulations” and unduly harsh punishment.
Now, back in March 2008, Panday was summarily suspended from the House based on his refusal to heed Speaker Barry Sinanan’s ruling that he should turn off his laptop computer if he was not using it to assist him in a contribution he was about to make. Panday refused to heed the Speaker’s ruling, and, in short order, members of the then PNM Government voted to have him suspended from the House.
Panday wrote of his suspension (on the UNC website): “What the Speaker is really trying to do is establish a regime in the House by which no member of the Opposition would be able to expose the corruption and incompetence of the PNM unless the Speaker allows it.” He did not explain how the laptop could help him expose corruption. He did not say if he was on Facebook interacting with friends when Sinanan pounced on him.
But better would follow during his suspension. In September 2008, Kamla moved a motion to have him reinstated. In arguing the UNC’s case, she said: “I have been advised by the Hon Member for Couva North to say as follows… that he will make no deals with respect to his reinstatement in this Parliament for the termination of his suspension…” In other words, like Manning today, he was not about to apologise then.
It got “curiouser”. During the debate on the motion for reinstatement, Manning responded. He said (inter alia), “What I found particularly distasteful about the incident—because I was present—was the manner and attitude of the Member for Couva North having been drawn to his attention, he decided to be what we describe in the society as wrong and strong…” Colm Imbert added of Panday’s stance: “…rather than the Member for Couva North apologising, it is the Speaker who should apologise (to him)…”
The PNM voted to continue Panday’s suspension. These two suspensions show that immaturity reins in what is considered the highest forum in the country. It’s bad enough when they slander and abuse each other. It’s infinitely worse when they verbally assault ordinary citizens who enjoy no privileges, no restitution.