Post 436.

IF THERE was ever a time that the centre seemed unable to hold, it is now.

The Police Service Commission has fallen apart, pulling the Prime Minister, the AG, and the Office of the President into its implosion. The Opposition has launched accusations of interfering political whispers, and we are left to be amazed that basic processes related to state administration could result in such spectacular failure. And the lawsuits, which feature a “who’s who” of lawyers, some who seem to love headlines, are simply adding to costs to be borne by impoverished taxpayers.

Still, public reporting of the messiness has been instrumental in highlighting the importance of decision-making and transparency by chairpersons of commissions and boards, and the accountability that must be necessarily insisted upon by other members. We’ve gained some insight into the tensions and debates that were taking place, commission members’ refusal to acquiesce without sufficient information or agreement, and their repugnance at a high-handed leadership style of commission governance.

Weeks ago, we were having another debate about boards in the face of the NGC fiasco and the agreement by Minister Imbert to grant an indemnity to the board of directors of the National Gas Company. The board misspent hundreds of millions of dollars to keep Atlantic LNG Train 1 operational. There’s now a legal debate about whether the indemnity could hold in court, the extent to which it raises red flags about poor judgment and what, in the end, will be anyone’s accountability for the risks taken with our shrinking financial resources.

Ordinary citizens would be just as interested in the details of this imbroglio for better understanding how the inner workings of boards, usually far from the public eye even in relation to public business, provide immense insight regarding who raises alarms, when decisions are questioned, whether political influence is in the mix, what role political patronage plays, and how public interest is or isn’t protected.

When the minister comes to tax you at the cash register or in your home, think about the $440 million lost with impunity. We can expect no action against the board. This is a government that appointed Malcolm Jones to the Standing Cabinet Committee on Energy during (and before dropping) the Petrotrin case against him to recover nearly $2 billion.

I don’t know how else to say it. While you are struggling to buy rice, flour and cheese in this pandemic, while your savings are depleted, intolerable amounts of public funds are wasted by ruling elites. Where do the cuts then happen? To scholarships for university students and GATE funding for graduate degrees. To stable jobs in the public sector which are increasingly becoming reduced to short-term contracts and insecure labour. To salaries for nurses who have not had a raise since 2013.

Over our history, boards and commissions whose responsibility is to protect public interest provide us with endless case studies of problematic processes and decision-making, ministerial influence, necessary whistle-blowing, and money lost to lawyers and legal opinions while the country seethes. Indeed, a few weeks ago, discussion at the Caribbean Corporate Governance Institute forum highlighted boards of state enterprises as well-known mechanisms for dispensing political patronage.

The question of board appointments also came up in relation to the TT Revenue Authority (TTRA). In the Government’s plan, the Finance Minister appoints six of nine members, and it’s claimed that the process will be fair and, by implication, non-partisan. Scepticism runs rampant, understandably. Even when board members are not directly appointed by a minister, ministerial priorities, warnings, interpretations and whims waft through the considerations taken into account by boards and commissions depending on staffing and budgetary arrangements, and the issues and relationships at stake. That’s just a common reality of our political system, and it ultimately costs us as a nation in integrity, civility and money.

When things fall apart and the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. This leads to the last point I want to make. Governing elites may not see, but the trust of a wearied public has worn thin. Minister Imbert can be infamously quoted as saying, “They haven’t rioted yet.” However, where public institutions, representatives, boards and commissions fail to keep trust, provide value for money, and be transparent, people lose faith.

Be warned. Bringing its own dangers, such disgust can be convincingly harnessed by those mobilising on the ground as a Trump-style strongman, as desperate and dissatisfied voters see the potholes and the hunger, scandals and waste.

Post 349.

The Darryl Smith fiasco seems like a model example of cover up after cover up. The fact that there’s still no commitment on behalf of state officials or political leadership to provide the truth of the matter, leaving more questions than answers, signals lack of commitment to ensuring that sexual harassment is a form of injustice that will not be tolerated or excused.

This is not surprising, if this was an issue taken seriously, political parties would all have their own sexual harassment policies, but the fact that these are as far away as legislation glaringly shows exactly how much impunity is an accepted reality.

We’ve heard about faults in the process of producing the report, but not that we can rely on the government and ministry to ensure that the public knows what really happened. It’s like the apparent faultiness of the report, which is based on the argument that Mr. Smith wasn’t given fair hearing, is more important than whether an employee of the ministry experienced sexual violence, which is what sexual harassment is, at the hands of a still-sitting Member of Parliament.

It’s like the lack of clarity about whether Michael Quamina was advising Mr. Smith or the ministry is as excusable as the $150 000 of public funds spent without accountability for the correctness of the process or its outcome. Who will ensure that the public knows the truth?

At this point, the hope seems to be that the whole thing will blow over and no answers will ever have to be provided. Sexual harassment legislation, if it ever comes, will not address this present injustice so the call should be for immediate answers as much as for longer term solutions. Those solutions include legislation, but require much more.

As the Equal Opportunity Commission, in its Guidelines on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, has rightly stated, “It should be noted that criminalising sexual harassment does not address the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace as it does not speak clearly to employers, does not advise them of their duties, nor does it provide recourse to the victims.The criminal law does not achieve these goals”.

The public service now has a sexual harassment policy which requires the state to embark on widespread effort to create buy-in so that state agencies understand their responsibility, not only to victims, but also for creating workplace cultures that prevent such sexual violence in the first place. The key to preventing sexual harassment is for employers and managers to adopt a zero-tolerance position. This position is represented by having trained harassment response teams, inclusion of sexual harassment protections in collective labour agreements, informal and formal grievance procedures, and counselling support.

All these are necessary, but still not sufficient. While sexual harassment may be committed by an individual of any sex, largely it is a form of gender-based violence perpetrated by men, whether in workplaces or on the street. Primarily, it’s what Jackson Katz would refer to as male violence against women, often younger or more vulnerable or with fewer economic options. Ultimately tackling this issue requires change in men’s engagement with gender-based violence – whether as perpetrators or as allies in creating change.

The Prime Minister should have used this moment to explicitly state that sexual harassment is a form of labour exploitation that his government is committed to preventing, and can be held accountable for in terms of its leadership on this issue. The AG should have committed to legislation that doesn’t leave women mired in the limitations of a whistle-blower process.

I was surprised at accusations of women’s complicity in this injustice, and would like to instead take a break from demanding women’s responsibility for fixing everything and welcome men’s role in speaking out and taking action on these issues in a way that sees real, measurable change.