Before I comment on or seek to correct the more egregious errors in the PNCR’s statement published as a letter in the SN of December 19, 2008 (‘Parties in opposition tend to encounter difficulties which can lead to the exit of important members, but they do recover’), it is worth noting that its level of vitriol and malice hardly contributes to enhancing public discourse or the creation of an informed polity.
Equally, it is a measure of how the PNCR has changed over the years in dealing with criticisms. When in 1996 along with other members of civil society I wrote a letter critical of a decision by Mr Desmond Hoyte to speak at a certain function, his response was a private letter to me stating that he “did not accept our concerns as being valid” and promising to follow up with a more complete response. And so he did two weeks later. Mr Corbin, too, demonstrated similar civility towards views expressed by me both publicly and in a letter to him advising him not to follow through with a boycott of the 2004 budget debate since it would rob the party and the country of constructive criticisms of the budget. In a response of April 7, 2004, he stated, “You need not apologise for your persistence. The party welcomes and encourages healthy debate as it is the only way to ventilate all relevant issues.” Apparently those who now issue statements on behalf of the party do not share those sentiments.
Let us now turn to the statement:
1. On taking to the streets: I am not sure by what strange logic or giant leap the statement could interpret my call for “holding the government accountable” as the option of taking “to the streets again.” I sincerely hope that a party which has been around for fifty-three years, twenty-eight of them in government, can be more constructive, creative and resourceful in its strategizing than to think its role is “the street” or nothing. And let me say that I hope the party still considers street activities not only as legal and legitimate but as one of the most effective instruments of political advocacy.
2. On the attitude of people of my “class” to PNC supporters: The statement suggests that people of my “class” refer to the supporters of the PNC as thugs and hooligans. I challenge the architects of the statement to show any evidence where I have ever described, even remotely or indirectly, the supporters of the PNCR or anyone else as hooligans and thugs. In fact one of my most emotional memories of a public encounter with a crowd of persons was during the disturbances on the East Coast Demerara in 2001 when at around 2.30 am a large group advanced on the car I was driving with a number of Indian staff members of our firm. I came out of the car with headlights on, approached the crowd, which was Afro-Guyanese, stating “Good Night friends, my name is Christopher Ram” and heard a voice say “that is a good man. Let us escort them out.”
On this question of class − whose class interests were served when the PNC boasted of its reversal of the policy of making the small man the real man and supported trickle-down economics and the downsizing of jobs in the public sector?
3. The statement refers to what it claims people of the class the party ascribes to me told Mr Corbin on his election as leader of the PNC. What I told Mr Corbin is on record; it is contained in a letter of February 3, 2003, congratulating him on his election as leader of the party and expressing the hope that he would “demonstrate in full measure qualities of wisdom, courage, understanding, sensitivity and personal sacrifice which few possess.”
4. On my party membership: The statement describes me as a “former active member of the WPA.” I have never been a member, let alone an active one, of the WPA. For some time I supported the WPA for its Rodneyite philosophy and principles which I believe are as relevant today as they were when Dr Rodney was around. And I have also acted supportively to other parties, including the PPP/C mainly when in opposition and the PNC. Over the past twelve years I have actively participated in around ten public activities of the PNCR, all in my capacity as an accountant and member of civil society. In fact in the run-up to the 2006 elections when the PNCR invited professional groups to send representatives to meet with it, I unhesitatingly volunteered to represent the accounting profession. Senior members of the party must be aware that I was consulted and sat in on working sessions of two of the main groups charged with the preparation of the party’s 2006 elections manifesto. I suggest to the architects of the statement that they enquire of the reasons for the manifesto being issued just a few days before the elections. Their findings would be instructive.
5. On where I was while the PNC led support for the people during the 2005 and 2006 floods: The statement asks where I was when the PNCR and its Leader led the way in the disastrous floods of 2005 and 2006. The answer is simple − I was actively engaged with civil society in helping to mobilize resources and in the distribution of hampers at the Civil Defence Commission on Thomas Road. When we consider the role and response of organisations like the Red Cross whose mandate is that kind of work and others like Alicea Foundation and the Guyana Citizens Initiative which was established in response to the 2005 disaster, it seems distasteful for any one individual or organization to claim credit. In fact Mr Corbin was doing just what President Jagdeo did – claim credit for what any citizen should do, let alone a political leader.
Apparently unaware of the several articles and letters I wrote on the flood and the failure of the government to account for the huge sums received, the statement asked, “Who was it that exposed the gross mismanagement, discrimination and corruption within the government flood relief programme?” Again I would refer the writers to the exchange of letters and my columns during and immediately after the flood and more recently to a three-part article on the Audit Office in which I reminded the Audit Office that their promised report on the flood accounting has not been issued three years after the disaster. Can I suggest that they ask Mr Corbin to press for the publication of the report? And are they aware that it was a letter dealing with the flood that prompted President Jagdeo to bring a law suit against me?
6. On the broader question of giving credit where credit is due: Just like its counterpart, the PPP/C takes all the credit for free and fair elections, the PNCR wants to take all the credit for statements and actions opposing the excesses of the government – for example, for the Disciplined Forces Commission Report and the exposé of extra-judicial killings. Should the PNCR not at least acknowledge the role of the GHRA? On another example − the court’s decision on the issue of broadcast licences: had the leadership of the PNCR been more willing to go to the courts, rather than claiming that the courts cannot be relied on, that decision may have come much earlier. Perhaps it is that same unwillingness by the top lawyers in the PNCR that led to the lapse of time before any action could be taken on behalf of the hundreds of poor and middle-class, mainly Afro-Guyanese out of their savings in Globe Trust after attorney-at-law Stephen Fraser, economist Professor Clive Thomas and I won a landmark case against the Bank of Guyana for its poor supervision of Globe Trust. In my view this is more than another gap in the knowledge of the architects of the statement but one of the many opportunities the PNCR under Mr Robert Corbin has missed to serve its constituents.
7. On VAT: Of all the absurdities in the statement, the one that takes the cake was the assertion that it was the PNCR and its Leader, Mr Robert Corbin, who pushed the VAT issue to the top of the national agenda. What about Mr CN Sharma, Red Thread and other groups which wrote letters and took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations on the VAT? The party seems to have gone into collective amnesia. Ram & McRae published a Handbook on the VAT and did a consultancy for the PSC on the matter while I appeared before the Special Committee on VAT, wrote several articles on the VAT which were widely quoted by the party and publicly challenged the government on the incorrect rate at which it maintains the VAT. Let me remind the authors that the PNC asked me to present the Technical Paper to the PNC Symposium on VAT at the Hotel Tower in November 2006 and it was that paper which formed the basis of a resolution from the floor mandating the PNC to take certain action. I should add that the party delayed advancing the matter while I was being unsuccessfully persuaded to alter one of my recommendations.
The authors of the statement have done a disservice to the person they sought to defend and to the party. If he was so effective on two of the most significant issues to have confronted the country prior to the 2006 elections – the flood and the announcement of the introduction of VAT – why did the party perform so poorly at the elections? The authors did not address any of the several factual assertions I made in my letter but rather incorrectly considered it an attack on Mr Corbin. The party’s statement is a litany of hearsay, wishful thinking and the imaginations of a creative mind. I therefore find it hard to believe that the statement was approved by Mr Corbin or any of the more informed leaders of the party.
Concerned as I am about our country, I sympathise with the political opposition in their efforts to have the President and his government act strictly in accordance with the constitution; raise the standard of governance and accountability; get meaningful representation on public boards and bodies; reduce corruption; ensure that state resources are not abused for partisan purposes; and above all else, ensure that the interests of the poor are not ignored while the disparity in income and wealth between the haves and have-nots widens.