When I was in the Senate, in 1996, I spoke and voted in favour of the grant of the Spiritual Shouter Baptist Liberation holiday, which was celebrated again last Wednesday.
At the, time I referred with affection to Earl Lovelace’s great literary work, The Wine of Astonishment, which tells of the struggle of the Baptists against colonial oppression.
It should be clear therefore that there is nothing personal when I treat with the underlying assumption contained in a recent statement by Archbishop Barbara Burke.
Apparently Archbishop Burke was not satisfied with a Government grant for the Baptist celebration. I heard her say scathingly on the television: “(TT)$40,000 can’t celebrate nothing.” She went on to speak of the transportation cost alone to bring elders to our capital from places like Toco.
Archbishop Burke’s statement was not only made at a time of serious economic concern but during a first quarter when thousands of real jobs were lost.
I say “real” jobs because the lost jobs were in the energy and heavy manufacturing sectors rather than the State-funded make-work programmes and padded employment of the public sector.
The underlying assumption of many protests at any curtailment of Government expenditure for celebration is that the State must provide copious funds to special interest groups for celebrations, festivals, cultural activities and sundry entertainments.
Our economic governance model has always provided for such expenditure. Archbishop Burke’s scorn at the sum allocated this year provides the stimulus for a critical examination of this item of State expenditure at this time of grave economic concern.
The term “special interest groups” or “special interests” is a term of repeated derision in politics in the United States of America. Not so in Trinidad and Tobago.
In fact, a notorious Cabinet minute on Carnival recognised such groups and, illegally in my view, cut the core out of the legislation establishing the National Carnival Commission.
Many other special interest groups have received large Government subventions, even when in some cases they already have a profitable business model. This subvention largesse is frequently distributed without credible accountability for how the recipients spend it has been habit forming.
Those who give it have formed the habit of using largesse as a tool to govern in the manner of bread and circuses described below.
The now prevalent dependency syndrome infects those who receive it. Our economic governance is crumbling into pieces.
Like others, I have given thought to how runaway Government expenditure can be treated, now that the country has little or no money to waste on unearned “bread and circuses”, which was the ancient Roman phrase for Government by appeasement.
The phrase is “used to describe the generation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through diversion; distraction; or the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace.”
Anticipating the Republican party having to pick up its own pieces in the post-Trump era, New York Times’ conservative columnist David Brooks regards it as critical that two steps are taken. I cite this because it fitted so well with my current thought process, even though I might have a less stringent view of the overall role of the State.
According to Brooks, the first step is “a mental purging casting aside presuppositions and a fixed mindset.” The second step is “going out and seeing the society to be governed “with fresh eyes and listening to it with fresh ears.”
Brooks describes this moment at which this re-examination is to take place as “a moment for sociology.”
Brooks asserts that today’s problems are different when compared to the social and family structure that prevailed in Reagan era, of which conservatives are so proud.
In America, he says they “relate to binding a fragmenting society, reweaving family and social connections, relating across the diversity of a globalised world.”
Trinidad and Tobago has needed a fundamental re-examination of its socio-economic situation since 1990 when we had the attempted coup. Instead of such a thinking approach, successive Governments, wary of the Robinson/NAR type cuts in public expenditure when necessary, believed that extravagant spending would keep the peace.
They fed and accepted more and more special interests groups, disbursing very large sums of money to them.
That is why it seems almost unthinkable today that grants of celebration money should be curtailed. It is part of our culture; but should it be?
This Government appointed an Economic Advisory Board headed by Terrence Farrell. It has submitted its report, which perhaps contains the re-examination of our socio-economic situation that we so badly need.
The report should be released immediately as a prelude to the mid-year review to be delivered in Parliament this week. Particularly as we can expect the usual partisan rhetoric about who did what to whom in tiefin’ and nepotism but few credible solutions.