4 Dec 2009

The truth will come out

A year and a half after Government Minister Marlene McDonald refused to reveal to the Parliament information about scholarship awardees, their names have been obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Indo-Trinbago Equality Council. And now questions will be raised as to why Ms McDonald refused to give the information which was requested in the Senate Order Paper, why the Ministry did not advertise the availability of these scholarships, and what were the criteria by which persons were deemed eligible.

The scholarships, totalling $46 million of State monies over four years, were given out under the previous holder of the Community Development, Culture and Gender Affairs portfolio, Joan Yuille-Williams.

In response to the revelation, the Culture Ministry hastily issued a press release, which addresses none of the pertinent concerns, save a vague claim that the criteria encompass youth, vulnerability and need. Nor was any explanation given as to why the Culture Ministry was handing out scholarships in the first place, when such disbursements should more properly fall under the Education or Public Administration or even Planning Ministries. Even if one were to argue that individuals pursuing arts courses might be better served under the Culture Ministry, only ten percent of the scholarships were in this area.

Part of Ms McDonald’s reluctance, no doubt, stemmed from the fact that it is all too easy to make this list into a political weapon. Based on a names analysis, for example, less than two per cent of the awardees are Indo-Trinidadian. Yet, given the deliberate secrecy of this process, it is likely that the non-official criteria was not race, but party-i.e. having PNM connections.

In fact, the Culture Ministry in its press release was bold-faced enough to draw attention to a Government Senator and a communications officer in the Prime Minister’s Office as examples of giving back to the country, as though political loyalty and a well-paid job constitute ’selfless’ patriotism. But it may well be significant that, when this controversy started in July last year, not one of the scholarship awardees broke their silence, even though some of them include media persons who were well-placed to air the matter.

Minister McDonald was foolish to have refused to give this information when the question was first posed, and her Ministry’s response now is only worsening the fallout. Not all the spin in the world can justify these awards, even if in the first instance the intentions were good. And this is a lesson which administration after administration has refused to heed-that whatever public relations damage a Government might experience by transparency is minimal compared to the long-term political injury caused by hiding information which, eventually, will out.