The more important issue is abuse of substance

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

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MS Verna St Rose Greaves, Trinidad and Tobago's former minister of gender, youth, and child development, raised many eyebrows in the region recently with her allegation that Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar "has an issue which must be addressed frontally".

That, unfortunately, has been widely interpreted to mean substance abuse, the substance being alcohol. The upshot is that it has become common talk among Trinidadians and has been posted on YouTube undoubtedly by politically motivated detractors.

Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar has categorically denied the allegation, stating publicly that she has "no such problem" and would have "nothing further to say with respect to that".

Her attorney general, Anand Ramlogan, has come to her defence, suggesting that there is a case to answer. Whether any such action will materialise is yet to be seen. However, this type of rumour is the stuff of great calypsos in a country famous for making fun of politicians.

It is, though, an unfortunate distraction from the serious centripetal forces tearing the increasingly fragile political coalition which constitutes the Government of Trinidad and Tobago. The real problem in the energy-rich republic is not substance abuse, but the abuse of substance. By that we mean the abuse of the substance of government business because of the ethnic stocking of public offices and the widespread perception of corruption.

This year, on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, Trinidad and Tobago was ranked 80 out of 176 countries, down from 71 in 2011. In fact, Trinidad and Tobago scored 39 on a scale of 100, on par with Jamaica and behind the rest of the Caribbean islands.

One of the egregious aspects of corruption is what is known as "ethnic stocking" — the appointment to public office, including overseas posts, on the basis of ethnicity to ensure ethnic monopoly of political power.

Notwithstanding Minister Jack Warner, the current Government of Trinidad and Tobago has systematically practised ethnic stocking; rewarding individuals with positions even though they not qualified, either by professional training or by pertinent transferable work experience.

The instances of local appointments are too numerous to discuss, but the embarrassment associated with overseas appointees poses reputational damage. Ms Therese Baptiste-Cornelis was fired as ambassador to the United Nations, Geneva after some inappropriate remarks. There was even a case of a diplomat assigned to the Trinidad and Tobago High Commission in London being charged with conspiracy to traffic cocaine.

Many people in Trinidad and Tobago do not want to tackle ethnic stocking because persons who raise the issue are accused of being racist in a society guilty of self-delusion about racial harmony.

There needs to be a parliamentary review of appointees to local and overseas posts to ensure that they possess the necessary qualifications and years of pertinent experience, and to establish a transparent selection process free of ethnic bias.

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