Not this time around. For once, there was no talk about a reckless disregard of the national debt, no sly suggestions of impropriety, no mention of cost over-runs—let alone loaded words such as criminals and renegades.
After all that had transpired prior to and during the 2011 election campaign, what a bore for reporters on the prowl for across-the-table threats and rumors of tax-funded personal vendettas. Tuesday’s House meeting might just as well have been advertised as an awards ceremony organized by a mutual admiration society!
In place of the usual rain of vitriol and bile there was wall-to-wall verbal backslapping and friendly exchanges that sometimes sounded disturbingly close to wit. When the prime minister and minister of finance had blessed the good intentions behind a US$5 million CDB loan to the SLDB, “for on-lending to approved sectors of the economy”—negotiated by the King government!—the leader of the opposition happily acknowledged the demonstrated magnanimity in “the best interests of our nation.”
The House bonhomie continued with the prime minister again endorsing another EC$15 SLDB loan, “for financing of a lending program in respect to agriculture industry services, low-income housing and students.” After all that, the last thing anyone would’ve expected was opposition to the prime minister’s own request for a measly US$2 million, “for financing the OECS Eastern Caribbean Regulatory project.” Surprise, surprise, the session ended without a single nay!
A press colleague called shortly after Tuesday’s meeting. Referring to the day’s House sitting, she asked: “So what did you think? Looks like Kenny was serious when he advised that parliamentarians should set aside personal differences and come together in the national interest.”
Confirmed skeptic that I am, I shrugged, as if to say “been there, done that, seen it all before.”
“Aw, c’mon,” said my friend, pointedly. “You, of all people, a pessimist?” She went on to say there was little we could do, other than trust our government to do their best for us, including the adoption of a new House attitude.
“You have to hope,” she said. “You gotta be optimistic!”
And I said, in lieu of an original line: “In the first place, leopards can’t change their spots. Besides, it’s one thing to jump out of an airplane in the reasonable hope your parachute will open normally and quite another to make that jump with all the hope in the world but no parachute. Optimism was never a guarantee of soft landings!”
On Thursday I fully expected fireworks when it came time to debate the government’s Constituency Councils bill, at the heart of which was the handpicking of fifteen councilors for each constituency. Widespread was the suspicion, welcome and unwelcome, that this was the government’s calculated way of getting back at its opposition colleagues for what had been perceived—not altogether without cause—as an unfair advantage afforded them in office by financial assistance from the Taiwanese government.
I waited in vain for the rain of intellect-bruising stink bombs. True, there were one or two reheated examples that underscored a lack of respect for such as Robert Lewis when he was the opposition MP for Castries south, and for his Vieux Fort north party brother Moses JnBaptiste. The latter made much of his allegation that Taiwanese funds had unfairly allowed a councilman and the UWP’s election candidate in his constituency to undertake projects without the smallest consultation with the sitting MP. Lewis had a similar gripe, as did the MP for Vieux Fort south, back again as prime minister and cock of the walk. But there was no obvious bitterness in the proffered repetitious recollections, maybe because of the cathartic effects of victory—or because their leader had somehow convinced the troops that the time had come, in consideration of our collective best interests, to get over their psychic bruises, on the proven basis that the problems confronting our nation cannot be resolved by the same thinking that created them.
There were moments of levity: the MP for Anse la Raye and Canaries, several times declared Calypso King of Saint Lucia, implied that his predecessor, with Taiwanese money to burn, had constructed “a bus shelter where no buses pass.” But all in all it seemed parliament had collectively determined on a new normal. While the opposition leader had brilliantly exposed holes in the proposed bill, he had also suggested its shortcomings were quite likely the result of haste on the part of the government, and not necessarily suspicious motives. His experience showed to advantage when he observed that while the bill was not in itself a bad thing, that its spirit was encouraging (a sentiment earlier expressed by the MP for Micoud South—what disaster have you visited upon your own head, Gail? Under the House lights it looked like the Dancing with the Stars glass globe!), the government remained untrustworthy. As if to justify his claim, he recalled that MPs on both sides of the House had each been invited to periodically recommend 25 individuals for STEP employment.
“As I see it,” he said, “the number of persons employed by the program would be just over 400 for each term. But the government, in announcing its achievements for its first hundred days in office, boasted of having initially employed 2000 and then 2000-and-something.” He wondered whether the extra 1600 or so was a typical exaggeration or whether the government parliamentarians had been treated preferentially. Again, even that was delivered without rancor. King was smiling as he spoke.
His mein changed abruptly when he reminded the prime minister of his repeated earlier promise to the people to put away the acrimony of the past, to make a fresh start, to work together with the opposition in the best interests of all who live here.
I couldn’t help thinking at this point that as articulate and precise as had been Stephenson King’s presentation (so much
for the negative references to his education . . . but then let me not spoil things by recalling too much of the past!), it was only to be expected, now the tables had turned. Indeed, I fully anticipated Kenny Anthony’s response. Alas, my expectations bit the dust. But then never have I been happier to be proved wrong. The prime minister stretched his magnanimity to a point never, yes, never before witnessed by me in all the years I’ve covered House meetings.
If at times he sounded like a schoolteacher—such as when he explained for the particular benefit of the Castries Central MP the difference between the words shall and may—perhaps it had more to do with his years as an educator. There just was none of the old know-it-all arrogance that had indelibly marred the 2011 House debate over the election of a deputy House Speaker and what the Constitution meant by the words “whenever it is convenient do so.”
If you can believe it, the prime minister, yes, Kenny Anthony, actually conceded at least two points to the Central Castries MP, albeit in Richard Frederick’s absence. Rather than attack points of disagreement, the prime minister chose to bend over backwards to accommodate opposition suggestions wherever possible, to make things less ambiguous, to clarify for regular consumption what sounded too much like arcane lawyerspeak.
During the committee stage, the full impact of what had transpired became more evident. It was next to impossible to discern by their tone that more than one party was represented. Even Guy Joseph sounded conciliatory when he addressed his old foe the prime minister who, earlier in the proceedings, had laughingly painted the Castries Southeast MP as a wily fisherman almost amateurishly tossing his line but in the secret hope of landing a shark; the shark being the prime minister.
So am I convinced now that what the leader of the opposition had earlier described as a branch of thorns disguised as a conciliatory olive branch was actually the real McCoy? Am I now optimistic?
Let me answer this way: I believe Kenny Anthony privately underwent serious attitudinal adjustments during the last five years. I believe, too, that he wants to ring in salutary changes in the best interests of his legacy. My concern now centers on the fleece-attired wolves he depends on, if only until he can be certain the majority of the people are on his side.
The conundrum Kenny Anthony confronts is this:
Can he remain true to his post-election pledges to the nation and still survive the insatiably self-interested Brutus knives in his own party?