Dis­crim­i­na­tion and con­tra­dic­tions

Stabroek News Sunday - - REGIONAL NEWS -

In this coun­try, peo­ple are rarely sur­prised by what their politi­cians say. In our rigid party sys­tem, we are ac­cus­tomed to hear­ing all kinds of in­fe­lic­i­ties is­su­ing from their lips. But just once in a while, those who pur­port to gov­ern us re­lieve them­selves of re­marks which are so im­per­mis­si­ble, so in­con­gru­ous and so con­tra­dic­tory that they catch the at­ten­tion of even the most im­per­turbable of vot­ers.

This time it is Min­is­ter of Pub­lic Health and Chair­man of the PNCR, Volda Lawrence, who is at the cen­tre of a storm, as a con­se­quence of an ad­dress she gave at the Re­gion Four District Con­fer­ence held at Congress Place on Novem­ber 25th. Now it may be that she made the mis­take of as­sum­ing that her pre­sen­ta­tion was a pri­vate one and would not be made pub­lic. If she did, she is not liv­ing in the cur­rent era of smart phones and the like. If, on the con­trary, she was con­scious she could be recorded in some form, then her con­ceit on be­half of her party knows no bounds.

On Fri­day, we head­lined ar­guably the most con­tentious of her re­marks, namely: ‘The only friends I got is PNC, so the only peo­ple I could give work to is PNC’. As if it were not dam­age enough to sug­gest in gen­eral that party mem­bers should get pref­er­ence in terms of con­tracts or jobs, she goes on to give a spe­cific ex­am­ple: “… right now, I look­ing for a doc­tor who can talk Span­ish or Por­tuguese and ah want one that is PNC.”

No­body needs to be told (ex­cept Ms Lawrence, ap­par­ently), that this trans­gresses var­i­ous laws in re­la­tion to trans­parency, ac­count­abil­ity and dis­crim­i­na­tion, in­clud­ing the pro­cure­ment law, the labour laws and the con­sti­tu­tion it­self. It is quite as­ton­ish­ing that a Min­is­ter of Gov­ern­ment no less, ap­pears ei­ther to­tally ig­no­rant of the law or is pre­pared to dis­re­gard it. Worse yet, she is recorded ex­hort­ing her party mem­bers who will be func­tion­ing in an of­fi­cial ca­pac­ity on lo­cal gov­ern­ment bodies, sim­i­larly to ride roughshod over the statute book.

Since when did she get the idea that she was op­er­at­ing in an au­toc­racy, and that trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity were just dec­o­ra­tive terms with no sub­stance? Surely some gov­ern­men­tal con­se­quence must fol­low from pro­mot­ing such a dam­ag­ing fal­lacy.

Cer­tainly, Leader of the Op­po­si­tion Bhar­rat Jagdeo wasted no time in con­demn­ing her state­ment as il­le­gal. “Volda Lawrence could be charged for this be­cause our labour law says that you can­not dis­crim­i­nate against peo­ple on the ba­sis of their gen­der, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, race, reli­gion, what­ever else. She is mak­ing it clear that she is go­ing to dis­crim­i­nate on the ba­sis of their pol­i­tics,” he told a press con­fer­ence on Thurs­day. It is cer­tainly not that he is wrong; it is sim­ply that while as far as is known, he was never recorded ex­press­ing him­self in the pre­cise terms of Volda Lawrence, he cer­tainly could not es­cape the charge that his gov­ern­ment was dis­crim­i­na­tory when it came to the award of con­tracts and the hir­ing of se­nior per­son­nel. In ad­di­tion, he was also in his speech on the cam­paign trail, al­legedly guilty of trans­gress­ing other leg­is­la­tion per­tain­ing to race.

In­evitably, Ms Lawrence felt con­strained to re­spond to the crit­i­cism she had re­ceived, but politi­cian-style, she never at­tempted to jus­tify it di­rectly, con­fin­ing her­self to say­ing she stood by her views on the mat­ter of jobs and un­em­ploy­ment. She went on to give the as­sur­ance that mea­sures were be­ing in­sti­tuted to en­able the young and in­dus­tri­ous to be given the op­por­tu­nity to be­come self-em­ployed or se­cure em­ploy­ment.

Her oblique an­swer to the mat­ter of con­tract awards was to state that she stood by her view that party mem­bers must ed­u­cate and po­si­tion them­selves to be among the 20% of small con­trac­tors who will be af­forded gov­ern­ment con­tracts, and that in ad­di­tion, they should be­come bilin­gual as Guyana was fast “be­com­ing a haven for peo­ple from coun­tries near and far.” In a rather weak re­sponse to the pos­si­ble im­plied racial over­tones of the is­sue of awards and jobs, Min­is­ter Lawrence said that if the coali­tion wanted to re­main in power af­ter 2020, it must take bet­ter care of all Guyanese.

In her ad­dress, how­ever, the PNCR Chair­man had some rather more di­rect things to say on the mat­ter of race, more es­pe­cially in re­la­tion to “at­tract­ing sup­port from non-tra­di­tional bases,” as her state­ment care­fully put it. The re­lease then went on to in­form the pub­lic that Ms Lawrence was a Guyanese of mixed her­itage, and that it ir­ri­tated her when she re­ceived re­ports that lit­tle or no work was be­ing un­der­taken in strongholds per­ceived to be those of the PPP. “[W]e must bring ev­ery­one in whether they looked like her or not”, read the state­ment.

In her ac­tual ad­dress, the mat­ter of race specif­i­cally arises in con­nec­tion with her view on the PPP’s in­crease in their seats on the Ge­orge­town City Coun­cil. She blames the PPP for us­ing race to achieve that end: “… there are 15 con­stituen­cies in Ge­orge­town hence there are 30 seats around the Horse­shoe ta­ble and the PPP en­sured that they had 28 peo­ple look­ing like me run­ning for Ge­orge­town and two look­ing like Jagdeo… do you un­der­stand the strat­egy?”

So much for po­lit­i­cal anal­y­sis. As Chair­man of the PNCR no less, she has ap­par­ently not read any of the re­views from the var­i­ous po­lit­i­cal pun­dits which give a rather more cred­i­ble and less bizarre ex­pla­na­tion than hers.

“Com­rades, pol­i­tics is a num­bers game …” we quote Ms Lawrence as say­ing. Well, not for her, it seems; she has trans­formed it into some­thing which is closer to a race game, al­though that word is never used.

She goes on to urge her lis­ten­ers not to as­sume that per­sons “look­ing a par­tic­u­lar way” come from Robb Street, and then af­ter iden­ti­fy­ing two mem­bers of the au­di­ence – Com­rades Sammy and Ma­hen­dra – she says “We got [to] bring more like them in … there are many out there who didn’t en­joy the sweet of the PPP ta­ble and they see some good in us and our poli­cies, such as so­cial co­he­sion.”

That must be the last word in po­lit­i­cal con­tra­dic­tions. Af­ter set­ting forth a case for dis­crim­i­na­tion, she then claims that the PNCR pol­icy rep­re­sents “so­cial co­he­sion”.

As we re­ported on Fri­day, the Chair­man urged her au­di­ence, com­pris­ing those who will be serv­ing on lo­cal gov­ern­ment bodies, to op­er­ate with the same zeal with which they cam­paigned. They were ex­horted to re­mem­ber that it was the party which put them in a po­si­tion of power. Sig­nif­i­cantly, she told them that the party had found when they put peo­ple in of­fice, “they for­get is the party put them there and they go and they suck up to the other peo­ple, some of them even vote with the other peo­ple.” This, we re­ported, she deemed unac­cept­able.

In a sim­i­lar vein, she in­structed the party mem­bers to be less con­cerned with what the PPP/C says on Face­book or on the news and be more con­cerned about the mes­sages com­ing from their own party. In short, ig­nore other sources of in­for­ma­tion; the party is al­ways right. For older vot­ers whose po­lit­i­cal me­mories ex­tend back to a dif­fer­ent epoch, this has some­thing of a fa­mil­iar ring about it.

“This thing is about us re­main­ing in power,” we quote Min­is­ter Lawrence as say­ing. If what she has out­lined is the PNCR strat­egy, more par­tic­u­larly as it re­lates to the breach of the law, then per­haps the party hi­er­ar­chy should go back to the draw­ing board if they want to have any hope of stay­ing in power.

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