Parliament: It’s not about Politics, it’s about People

This is the first article in a five (5) part series – Parliament: It’s not about Politics, it’s about People. The series was inspired by a string of occurrences during the 74th to 82nd sittings of the Eleventh Parliament of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana. It offers brief commentary and analysis in simple language to anyone interested in learning, and thinking more deeply about the types of solutions needed to address the issues arising from Guyana’s current state.

For as long as I live, I will never forget the spirit in which the 74th to 82nd sittings of our Eleventh Parliament were conducted. I am deeply disappointed in both sides of the House and severely wounded by what appeared to be a complete disregard for the sacred calling they each chose to answer, for the trust our people have placed in them, for the sacrifices our ancestors made to ensure that we could enjoy the right to govern ourselves, and for their own dignity.

The men and women who sit in Parliament are no fools or dunces. They are among the best and brightest minds this country has produced in their generations. They are also some of the most courageous among us because they chose to stay and give their life in service to this country. Why then have they so easily reduced the highest form of our national conversation (our Parliamentary Discourse) to nothing more than a common cuss-out?

Perhaps our Parliamentarians and many of us have forgotten that our National Assembly – one of the symbols of our right to call ourselves a free people – is something that we paid for in sweat and blood. To disrespect the sanctity of Parliament is to spit on our past, present and future.

The birth of our society was like any other birth. It was full of pain. Some of our people came here out of necessity or in search of fabled riches. Many more of our people were forced into this land either through enslavement or a false promise of prosperity. Our birth was also full of life and need, if not love. We came together and stayed together for survival.

Before 1966, our struggle for freedom from our colonial masters united us. Our fight was against a common enemy and we burned with desire for the right to be our own people. I don’t think we fully understood what that meant. With our vision turned outward on that long ago enemy, we perhaps failed to fully think through what would be required of us to build a nation.

Just over five decades since that first historic win (Independence), the common enemy and the immediate needs which bound us together have faded. Our sense of duty to each other has weakened and we are now each other’s enemy. These past weeks Parliament has, now more than ever before, been a house turned against itself.

I have heard many people describe the recent events in Parliament as “just politics”. Is it really? Parliament isn’t about politics, it’s about people and their lives. Every Member of the National Assembly is responsible for representing the interests of our people. They have been chosen to lead the advancement of this nation in a manner that is in keeping with the best interests of Guyanese. Now take a moment to think about the last two weeks without trying to decide which side of the House is to be blamed for what and ask yourself: have they been able to do this?

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Featured Image: Copyright Keno George (Parliamentary Stories)

Disclaimer:

This article, like all others in the series Parliament: It’s not about Politics, it’s about People, is not meant to advance any position on behalf of any political party or any other entity or group. It is part of a collection of political commentary and analysis – expressed in simple language by a young Guyanese – made available for anyone interested in learning and thinking more deeply about the types of solutions needed to address the issues arising from Guyana’s current political state.

 

A note from the Author:

Given the custom by party loyalists to misrepresent and misuse any type of political commentary to support their own positions, I feel that it is necessary to borrow the following from Thomas Paine (an English-born American political activist, philosopher, political theorist, and revolutionary) with whose work I became acquainted as a student of History at the University of Guyana:

Who the Author of this Production is, is wholly unnecessary to the Public, as the Object for Attention is the Doctrine itself, not the Woman. Yet it may not be unnecessary to say, That she is unconnected with any Party, and under no sort of Influence public or private, but the influence of reason and principle.

Craig Village, East Bank Demerara, December 16, 2017

 

Have a question or require further information? You can email me at sarabharrat@gmail.com

For Dave Martins – 100 Reasons to Hope: Reason #3

Dear Dave,

Over the last weeks, I have been going into selected communities to help implement a project for the Guyana National Youth Council. I have never been so inspired in my life. I have gone from street to street meeting honest Guyanese who are passionate about building this nation.

In Region 5, I met a local government official who said that they understand that being in office does not mean that they must give privilege first and foremost to the people who live on their street.

“Not because I live on this street, it means that this street must be fixed first…we do works based on priority and that priority is determined by needs and urgency of needs and not based on which official lives where,” they said.

I am proud of Guyanese like this, Guyanese who put the welfare of all citizens above their political interests, above the political interests of a particular party. This gives me hope. It makes me want to stay and work. It keeps me going.

 

Reason #3: There are still Guyanese who are capable of working in an honest and objective manner to develop Guyana; who put country and people before party politics.

 

Without wax,

Bharrat

Politics Will Not Decide Who I am

When I was 7 or 8, I lived along Craig Sideline Dam at my grandparents’ farm house. I farmed my own little plot of cash crops to help buy my school books and I spent hours stooping in slushy mud, between pakchoy and lettuce banks, picking snails and weeds from among the healthy, thriving plants. This is something I haven’t very often shared about myself.

I have milked cows, sold fruits and vegetables on the road side and cleaned out chicken pens. During my teenage years, I stood behind the counter of my uncle’s shop in Craig Old Road selling into the night. I fetched cases of rum, bags of sugar and rice and occasionally bunches of plantains from the boat by the Craig trench landing to our house.

Most of my immediate family are traditional PPP supporters. My maternal grandfather was a cane cutter and farmer. His wife, was a seamstress and market vendor. On my father’s side, they were rice farmers from Essequibo and later moved to the East Coast of Demerara. These are things about myself I used to be afraid to share because I was afraid that I would be shamed.

I became politically aware during my early 20s. I realized then that everyone stereotyped me. Because I looked Indian, because I was of Indian ancestry, it was automatically assumed that I was PPP. And guess how we stereotype PPP supporters? PPP supporters are painted as backward cane cutters, as lacking intellectual capacity, as being dishonest, as being evil, as being the people responsible for the state of Guyana.

So when some people look at my face or any face like mine, this is what they think of us. This is the product of identity politics in Guyana. It has robbed us of the right to be and to be proud of who we are and where we came from. It has robbed us of the opportunity to really see our parents and grandparents, to truly value what they have brought to this nation. My grandfather died without me ever recognizing what an extraordinary man he was and how hard he worked for his country. I never got a chance to look him in the eyes and tell him how much he meant to me. You see, before he died I didn’t realize that he was a victim of a system that he couldn’t control.

I do not for a second believe that my experience is unique to me or to young people of Indian ancestry. I believe this is something that is experienced by all of us, no matter what we look like or where we come from. Our political culture has blinded us. We don’t see each other. We see the political stereotypes that have been painted of us for decades.

For a while, I hated looking in the mirror. I hated seeing my own face and what I believed it represented. Since then, I’ve realized that my ancestral history is so much more than the politics that has hijacked it.

And the worst part by far is that I cannot even speak up for my identity without having my voice politicised. If I speak for the Indian identity, for my right to this part of my culture and heritage, then I will be labelled as a pro-PPP racist. Most people don’t care for my independence, they only see what I look like and the stereotype that is attached to my features.

Yes, I am Guyanese and part of what makes any of us Guyanese is our unique sub-cultures and heritage. These differences give the Guyanese identity value. To attempt to take away any one facet of any of our identity, is to rob our country of part of its history and part of what makes it what it is.

We cannot have a Guyana without any of its people. We cannot have a Guyana without PPP supporters and they will never join us unless we stop demonizing them, stop crucifying them for their political beliefs, stop making them afraid to be among us. These people are our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, our friends.

The PPP alone is not responsible for the crisis of identity politics in Guyana. The PNC, now under the unity umbrella of the APNU-AFC Coalition, is equally responsible. I say this not to cast blame on either party, but to acknowledge that identity politics has been a weapon of both our major political factions. And until Guyanese begin to see what identity politics has taken from them, we will always be shamed for being who we are.

For Dave Martins – 100 Reasons to Hope: Reason #2

Dear Dave,

In 2015, the APNU/AFC Coalition won the general elections by 1.1% or 4, 506 votes. I like to think of this margin as the 1.1 majority and I believe that it is, to a large extent, reflective of the majority of non-partisan voters who voted in that elections.

We must also recognize that there are those non-partisan voters, like myself, who decided not to be backed into a corner where it felt like we were choosing between the lesser of two evils.

At the Guyana 2066 talk, President of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry Vishnu Doerga indicated that he believed independents were less than 4,506 in number. He also pointed out that we kept seeing the same faces at most spaces which represent independent conversations.

While I am inclined to agree with Doerga on this, I also believe that the repetition of faces is not necessarily a bad thing. The repeated faces have access to their various in-groups where they act as influencers. They, in their own ways, lead independent thinkers or the non-partisan Guyanese and they have the power to increase those numbers.

 

Reason #2: Even though non-partisan and/or independent thinkers seem to be very few in Guyana, they hold enough power together to shift our traditional approach to politics. Guyana is we own so dem bettah watch wa dem ah tell we and do we.

 

Without Wax,

Bharrat

For Dave Martins – 100 Reasons to Hope: Reason #1

Dear Dave,

I still think of the evening of May 24th, 2016 at Moray House Trust. Only two days before our country’s 50th Independence Anniversary, I spoke about my vision for Guyana in 2066 and expressed my belief that change, the kind we want, was inevitable.

After my talk, you more or less asked me why we should continue to hope. I tried my best to answer you in that moment and I ended by giving you a hug because I wasn’t sure then what else I could say. I’ve been thinking of your question since.

Towards the end of 2014 and until the beginning of this year, I felt that there was nothing to hope for and that there was no reason to continue fighting. It was like being thrown into a dark, bottomless pit where you didn’t even have the escape of an end.

It’s part of why I haven’t been writing. My words, they come from a deep and pure place, a place that preserves my belief in the good of this world. While I agree that a significant part of being human is being able to think, I believe that it is our ability to feel that defines our humanity in a more profound way.

When I allowed myself to be infected with hopelessness, it was as if all the joy had been sucked from my soul. And it was impossible to write then. How could I when all I had to share was pain and disillusionment and hopelessness? Can you imagine how many more of us feel like this?

When people like you and I – who share our love for country and people despite the vulnerability such sharing brings – lose hope, it can have disastrous consequences. You see, when we are infected with hopelessness, we don’t just lose hope for ourselves but for all those whose lives we touch in a meaningful way.

I believe that one day Guyana will cease to be a place where a privileged group continues to control our country’s wealth by manipulating our people with black and brown politics. Because I believe this, I have hope for a better future, if not for all of us, for our children and their children.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll share 100 reasons to continue hoping for a better Guyana with you. But this isn’t really about you or me, this is about the thousands of people who feel the same things we do and who, like us, struggle to live life in this country one day at a time. This is for our people, Dave.

 

REASON #1

We’re alive, we think and most importantly we feel. This means we can still fight for what we want. There’s really no limit to what we can do. No limit at all. Just believe and keep the hope alive.

 

With love and without wax,

Bharrat

 

Is a 50% ministerial pay increase really the best way to address corruption?

I originally wrote this article as a sample to be submitted to an editor. I decided to publish it today because there are some questions which must not be allowed to sleep for too long. If you would like a copy of the original article complete with references feel free to reach out to me either by commenting here, email or Facebook.

“I believe it is justifiable. You cannot have a situation like in the PPP where they were prepared to accept low salaries because they were thiefing money all over the place. We are not going to do that…and so we have to pay people well if you want them to perform.” Joseph Harmon, Minister of State, Stabroek News, October 7, 2015.

 

When Minister of State Joseph Harmon announced the 50% salary increase for Government ministers last year, many Guyanese expressed outrage for two reasons. They were angry because the move was perceived as a violation of the principles on which the APNU+AFC Coalition campaigned earlier that year and they believed that it expressed gross insensitivity to public servants at the lower end of the hierarchy.

On the day Harmon made the announcement, he was reported by Stabroek News and other major media outlets as saying that he believed the pay increase was justifiable because “You cannot have a situation like in the PPP where they were prepared to accept low salaries because they were thiefing money all over the place”.

Harmon’s statement alludes to the existence of a link between low pay of senior government officials and corruption. The World Bank has (since 1997) defined corruption as the abuse of public office for private gain. By “thiefing money”, as the Minister of State so eloquently alleged, the former PPP government officials were using their office or position of power for personal gain; they were engaging in corruption.

This corruption, as Harmon’s statement suggests, was due – not primarily to the lack in morality of his predecessors – but to the fact that they were willing to accept low pay. Within this context, the exorbitant salary increase appears to be a method for addressing corruption by way of prevention and for ensuring that senior government officials perform.

The most distressing thing about this statement is that it stands in stark contrast to the stance the APNU+AFC Coalition took while in opposition and on the campaign trail in 2015. These same PPP salaries, which Harmon now describes as “low” enough to be a cause for corruption were once represented in his and his peers’ rhetoric as being exceedingly high and for the “fat cats”.

In the interest of diplomacy, we can say that Harmon and the Coalition’s position on the matter has changed. However, since diplomacy has never been the best language for truth, the only thing left to say is that the campaigners of change have lied to the people.

But even in light of this most distasteful fact, Harmon is correct in presuming that an increase in pay for senior government officials is one way to tackle the corruption problem. Whether this is the best move that Guyana can make currently is another issue. Would it have made more sense to offer public servants lower down the hierarchy a salary increase in order to curb corruption?

In the absence of scientific data, some amount of introspection is necessary to support the statement which immediately follows. Petty corruption – as it exists at the lower level of the public service ladder – is now cultural. When a police man pulls over a driver, the former will most likely ask for money, the latter will willingly pass “a lil raise” and perhaps neither will fully grasp that they are engaging in an act of corruption.

Similarly, the practice by citizens who go to any government office is to hand over a “lunch money” in order to get efficient service. The rampant practice of corruption by lower to mid-level public servants has been linked by studies to wages that are too low.

Employees, Augusto Lopez-Claros writes in “Six Strategies to Fight Corruption”, may find themselves under pressure to supplement their incomes in “unofficial” ways. Lopez-Claros further refers to the popular study by Van Rijckeghem and Weder which shows there is an inverse relationship between the level of public sector wages and the incidence of corruption.

Increasing the pay of public servants across the board has been part of a national strategy that Singapore has successfully used for years. Singapore is one of the least corrupt countries in the world. One of the reasons Singapore has been so successful in fighting corruption is because it keeps the salaries of its politicians and civil servants high in order to prevent brain drain and to stamp out the economic incentive for engaging in corrupt activity.

The important point to note here is that Singapore did not just give hefty salaries to its politicians and top government officials but to public servants throughout the hierarchy. Hong Kong has since followed this example.

Will the Government of Guyana be doing the same? And if we assume that the ministerial pay increase is just the beginning, why did they decide to begin the increase at the top, was it really the best decision and when can public servants expect their salary increases?

Statements made by Minister of Finance Winston Jordan in “Don’t expect an elaborate increase” – an article published in the March 17, 2016 edition of the Kaieteur News – provides some of the answers. According to the article, Jordan warned that “the expectations for handsome increases need to be tempered” and public servants can expect only a “top-up” to their salaries.

The finance minister justified this “top-up” approach to the salary increase of low and mid-level public servants by agreeing with a recently released report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF mission, which was recently in Guyana, suggested “moderating the growth of wages, as well as reforming public enterprises with a view to reduce their reliance on government support.” Jordan agrees.

It is clear that public servants lower down the hierarchy will not be receiving the same treatment as the Coalition ministers.

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Rain, Romance and Pop Culture

Morgue File - Nov 7-4

Scrubbing clothes in the rain yesterday did me in. I spent today rolling around in bed trying to sweat a fever out and watching YouTube videos in desperate hope of learning something about pop culture. I learnt about queefing, Netflix-and-chill and the orgasm inducing mushrooms. Pop culture scares me.

It rained most of today. This morning it was beautiful. I love the way everything turns grey and cold and beautiful in a subdued sort of way. It’s like seeing a whole new world in a place where you’re accustomed to sharp, hot light making everything too vivid.

I spend a lot of my social time in one particular Whatsapp group. This morning one of my friends said that his grandmother’s fireside was the warmest place in Mahaicony on a rainy day and that sent us down memory lane. He shared his memories of hot chotah sprinkled with sugar and how his grandfather would say “this kiss-meh-ass boy” when he didn’t milk the cows right.

I’m just a few years younger than he is but I don’t have those sort of memories of my grandparents. By the time I was old enough to know them they had moved from the back-house where the cows and chickens were, to the front house with the shop that sold everything from a bag of rice to an ounce of nut butter.

When I consider the sort of memories we all have and I look at us and who we are now and what we do, I begin to understand what time does to us. There’s no telling what 2 or 5 or 12 years will do, where it will take us and what we’ll lose. I’m happy we didn’t lose these memories. I’m happy that the old world still lives in our hearts and our words.

Tonight, I was going through the pictures of my Whatsapp contacts. It’s a mindless habit I’ve developed and it helps me keep in touch with people’s lives. I saw a picture of my friend laugh-kissing his wife at his 30th birthday party. It was a perfect imperfect moment captured and frozen in time. I hope they’ll be able to look at that ten years from now and remember the good things, the things worth remembering while we deal with the mundane duties of life.

Netflix-and-chill, stew, who came up with that shit? I wonder what my partner would say if I looked at him and said “hey baby, wanna Netflix-and-chill?” Pop culture seems to suck the romance out of life sometimes. Or maybe I just don’t get it. For now, I’m off to bed.

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