Letters & Opinion

Opposition offers Government a rare opportunity: Political Unity Against COVID!

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Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

THE Opposition United Workers Party (UWP) last Thursday (26 August, 2021) issued a press release heavily criticizing the new Labour Party (SLP) administration’s handling of what the former ruling party described as “a national health crisis”.

The party said it was “extremely concerned about a lack of direction and irresponsible behaviour exhibited by this government in its management of the pandemic.”

UWP Senator Phera Polius also told reporters at a news conference: “The current COVID-19 surge needs immediate implementation of more assertive measures to reverse the spike, safeguard the health of the people and keep the economy buoyant.”

The release said she referred to “the government’s stated intention to decriminalize COVID-19 protocol violations and expunge the criminal records of violators”, “at a time when viral infections and deaths are spiralling not only locally, but throughout the region and the world.”

Saying “This is ridiculous!”, the opposition senator asked: “What underlying message is this government conveying… on the pandemic…” and “…how it intends to combat this virus?”

And she pondered, “based on observations and reports,” that “many Saint Lucians are now becoming carefree in the wearing of masks in public, adhering to curfew and other protocols.”

Senator Polius freely advised that “The approach of simply talking and encouraging citizens to comply was not working eight or ten months ago….”

But, based on her party’s experience in office, she added: “While some citizens were and are still disciplined in their actions, many failed and to this day still fail to comply or refuse to comply, hence the need for aggressive monitoring and enforcement.”

The opposition senator openly lamented that: “Today, when the situation is at its worst and governments across the globe are strengthening guidelines, protocols and regulations, Prime Minister Philip J. Pierre finds it fitting to relax on some of the same previously-established regulations and simply hope that encouraging and educating citizens alone will most effectively combat the spread of COVID-19.”

It’s easy to dismiss all the above as sour grapes and pure lime juice still being sucked slowly by a former ruling party that almost lost all its parliamentary seats, only barely saving two.

After all, the UWP’s August 26 press release and press conference were timed to coincide with the first full month after the General Elections.

But some golden opportunities come so rare in politics that when they actually do and actually stare the nation in the face, they can easily be missed, as in this case.

The UWP press release did include the expected bellyaching, grousing and grouching — but also some very strong and barely-coated statements worth noting (and acting upon).

First: The call for “more assertive measures…”

Second: ‘…simply talking and encouraging citizens to comply was not working eight or ten months ago….”

Third: “While some citizens were and are still disciplined in their actions, many failed and to this day still fail to comply or refuse to comply” and hence the need for “aggressive monitoring and enforcement.”

And Four: Relaxing COVID regulations “and simply hope that encouraging and educating citizens alone will most effectively combat the spread of COVID-19” did not work for the UWP administration — and won’t under the SLP.

All four statements are crystal clear in their common position that measures today need to be strengthened and not weakened; and while people should be expected to always make best choices, they don’t always do.

Senator Polius (and the UWP) have obviously concluded, based on bitter and costly experience, that more drastic measures are needed.

She didn’t recommend government should mandate or require that certain protocols be followed in the interest of preserving and protecting the nation’s health.

But she clearly recommended the current government having to do what’s necessary, instead of saying what might be regarded as Safe — or Politically Correct.

The element of public trust is also very evident in the senator’s conclusions on the likely improbability of current gubernatorial expectations.

In what can fairly be interpreted as an honest warning based on agonizing experiences, she clearly pointed out that public trust never yielded expected results during her party’s last eight months in office.

The divisive partisan trends nurtured by the colonially-implanted Westminster electoral model before and since the West Indies Federation (1962), Associated Statehood (1967) and Independence of smaller Associated States (as of 1979) have left their historical trademarks, including total mistrust of ‘the other side’.

Here, it’s seen in respective ruling parties continuously and repeatedly shaping and reshaping administrations in their truest images and likeness, not trusting anyone considered politically associated with ‘the other side’…

But, much as it’s part of the reality of how politics works in the former European colonies that inherited bequeathed monarchical and constitutional coattails at Independence, this should not apply in the 21st Century.

All of the past ten general elections in Saint Lucia since 1979 have been followed by implementation of this strong element of partisan distrust and mistrust in different forms, many resulting in experienced technocrats being simply sidelined, political appointees dismissed and others totally removed from access to the important levers of power in the new political paradigm.

But it’s also easy for all sides to simply overlook persons with good intentions and/or reasons to no longer identify with ‘the other side’, including the very many who honestly deserted the UWP on July 26, not because they supported the SLP, but since they were genuinely fed-up with or opposed to actions taken by their party, in and out of office.

Many supported the two Castries North and central independent candidates who won, but while not requesting SLP Membership Cards or joining party groups, are also ready and willing to cooperate with the new administration to turn a new leaf – and make a good, fresh start.

Saint Lucians demonstrated through the last general elections results they are fed-up with having had to change governments flour times (every five years) for the past two decades.

But any fresh start will not begin without the leadership of all the political parties beginning to show, sow and sew such ideas aimed at planting trust across the deep and wide national partisan political divide.

Nowhere is this costly mistrust most evident than in the parliament, where members of both Upper and Lower Houses are not known to embrace bi-partisan initiatives, either in discourse or voting.

The sting of the elasticity of this divisive mindset is also felt in the fact that Saint Lucia can still end-up without an Opposition Leader being formally sworn-in soon, because the same traditional mistrust will not likely allow either of the two UWP MPs to support either of the two Independents for the position – or vice versa.

The realist under my skin has a template for a related solution that will be a ‘win-win’ for both and all ‘sides’, but the same mutual mistrust across the partisan and parliamentary divide would possibly see it shot down by one or both sides.

Same with the demonstrated willingness of the last administration to shelf and condemn major near-completed national projects (like a much-needed hospital and an international airport) and not adopt the proposed joint CARICOM approach to decriminalization of marijuana, simply because they were initiated by or associated with persons seen by the government of the day as associated with then top Saint Lucia opposition figures.

Restoring trust must always be a priority aim of this administration and a good starting-point can be by embracing of professionals who served under the last administration or in earlier ones, who’re prepared to truly serve the national interest with opportunity – and good leadership.

Recycling old ideas can be difficult or slower in these new COVID times and when new occasions arise — like the UWP calling on the government to do more and take stronger actions to fight COVID — it always helps, even behooves, for those messaged to listen to those who’ve been there and done that.

Politicians today must be able to clearly distinguish between shrill and senseless ‘windbag’ utterances and what sounds like genuine expressions of hard truths forced by cold and brutal realities.

If I was asked, I would advise the new administration to quickly take the Opposition Senator’s advice and formally seeks her party’s support to rally its tens of thousands of supporters to support the government taking necessary actions for people do what they should to protect themselves and families — and the rest of the population.

This is probably the best time for the SLP and UWP to demonstrate, in and out of parliament, their mutual ability and willingness to rise above the din by sinking the usual traditional differences and agreeing that in these new COVID times, what supporters of both parties — and all citizens — ultimately want is an end to the 17 months of Lockdown Fatigue and (as close as possible) a return to what used to be Normal.

It is possible…

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