17 Aug 2010

Politics, promises, pensions and grants

The PNM opposition in Parliament is quite right. The plain truth is that the People's Partnership Government broke its campaign promise with regard to the increase in what is popularly known as old age pension. While at the start of the general election campaign, all that they promised was an increase of the then old age grant to $3,000, by the time their manifesto came out, this had ballooned to a promise of universal pensions for all at age 60, without conditions.

It was a thoughtless, reckless promise which should never have been made. And it is well that it has been broken. It did not require a degree in economics or finance to understand that the cost of fulfilling such a promise would have been enormous indeed. So why did they give such a reckless undertaking? That question goes to the essential character of the Partnership as a political party and gives us some indication of the limits to their reach.

Let us ask the question this way. Is the People's Partnership a different kind of political party from the PNM? Such a question admittedly could be answered from many points of view. I want to suggest one such viewpoint. Back in 2007, some time after the PNM had won the general election of that year, a reporter asked then minister Colm Imbert about a promise which had been made on the PNM election platform and which had not been heard of after they formed the government.

I do not now recall Mr Imbert's exact words on that occasion but what he said was something to the effect that we should not take promises made on the campaign platform seriously since most of them were made without any intention of being implemented. The PNM opposition in Parliament, which includes Mr Imbert, should recall those words before they seek to make too much capital of the present Government's broken promise.

So is it that the People's Partnership made the promise of universal pensions at age 60, knowing full well that if they formed the government, it would never be implemented? In which case what is the difference between them and the PNM? But if that is not the reason then why was this promise made?

I do not think that we can honestly charge the People's Partnership with possessing the unbridled cynicism that is clearly inherent in Mr Imbert's words. But we do have to admit that in making such a reckless promise, along with its other promises made, the People's Partnership was revealing that it possessed the same negative view of the capacity of our people, for serious, reasoned and informed decision-making ,which has characterised almost every political party that has ever presented itself to the population over the last 50 years.

It is a view of our people which says that they are too illiterate, too uneducated, too unsophisticated, too narrow-minded and too gullible, to understand serious issues put before them, to understand and accept bad news and analyses put before them, and to understand and accept that as citizens they would be required to shoulder the responsibility of genuine change and development.

On the basis of such a view of our people our politicians have long established that election campaigns are about "rum and roti politics". We must understand in this context that the term "rum and roti politics", which in the old days was a literal description of a political phenomenon, today is a metaphor for the politics of bribes, deception and deceit. If you feel that you cannot tell the people the truth, then lie. If you feel that you cannot win their support on the basis of reasoned plans and proposal, then promise them whatever you think they may want to hear.

But, of course, the People's Partnership, as far as its essential character is concerned, is far more complex than that. For side by side with this lack of trust in our people so typical of our politicians, lies a genuine, though unformulated and unarticulated, sense of a nobler purpose, a sense that the call to public service is a grave and serious undertaking. These contradictory sentiments exist at the macro level of the party, partly because it is a coalition, but they also exist at the level of the individual politicians, in some more than in others.

One interesting indication of this internal contradiction in the party is to be found in the same piece of legislation. The Government's insistence on reverting the name of the senior citizens payment from that of "Grant" back to "Pension" is more than a matter of semantics. The difference between those two words is a difference of political philosophy, a fundamental difference of view as to the relationship between government and people.

For the PNM, which first introduced the term "grant", that term, with its connotations of a gift or an ex gratia award, represents perfectly that party's view that Government and its resources belonged to the party that won the election and that it was perfectly legitimate to use such resources to ensure the dependence of people upon the party and to thus ensure the party's survival in office.

The term "pension", however, signifies an entitlement that has been earned and cannot be alienated. For example, people who receive an NIS pension, as pitifully small as it is, would have previously earned it by their contributions. However to speak of the payment of a "pension" to people who may never have been employed in their lives can only be justified in the context of a view of citizenship which conceives of the existence of an inherent entitlement to the resources of the land simply by virtue of being a citizen.

That is the powerful philosophical dimension behind such a simple change in a name. The fact that the Government, in presenting its case, was unable to articulate this does not mean that the sentiment is not there. It is there, side by side with the view that the people cannot be trusted with the truth.

How such conflicting and contradictory sentiments will play out in terms of concrete policies remains to be seen. But I suspect that the country is in for some very interesting times indeed as this and other internal contradictions in the People's Partnership, work themselves out.

* Michael Harris