Discrimination and contradictions
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.