Recuse, refuse and kerfuffle

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By Tony Deyal

When I was small, every family had a case for safe-keeping called a “cabinet”. Then we started to call it a “safe” but I quickly realised, right after Trinidad and Tobago became independent and had our own government, that nothing is safe in any cabinet. I worked in the office, or as some of my friends pronounced it “orifice”, of three prime ministers and learnt that “safe”, especially in politics, is among the most feared “four-letter” words of all.

What prompted my blast from the past was that a Trini citizen asked the government how many members of the cabinet “recused” themselves from the discussions of, and decisions on, any matters that had come to them. “Recuse” in this context means the removal of oneself as a policy-maker in a particular matter, especially because of a conflict of interest. The government, behaving as if it had something to hide, refused. This then led to the person taking the matter to the court via the Freedom of Information (FOI) act, and winning. So the skit, played by both major political parties, the government and the opposition, hit the fan.

Fortunately, having been around the Caribbean for a long time and met many blowhards, I am not a fan and I don’t blow hot and cold. Let’s look at what happened. The number of abstentions by two members, one for 57 times and the other 37, was particularly large and made much of by the media and the opposition. In fact, it caused quite a kerfuffle (an English word meaning disturbance or commotion). Yet, when earlier this month Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, did not recuse himself from a matter, he apologised and even admitted that he had made a mistake for not doing so. What this means is that politics at any level may have lots of perks and opportunities to make money but it is essentially a no-win situation unless you get a kickback for your time, efforts and support, and not from a horse or your leader.

Trinidad and Tobago has 30 cabinet ministers including the capo dei capi capo (boss of bosses) the prime minister of the country who pointed out that “Recusals are a normal part of the operations of the cabinet.” What neither the government nor the opposition has touched or talked about is that there is something in groups, especially among politicians, called “reciprocity” meaning “you kiss my hand or other part of my anatomy and I will kiss yours when the time comes.”

In fact, another way of taking sides is to scratch the back of someone who scratched or will scratch yours. This means that even if a member recuses, the other members will stand up and the votes will be counted in favour of the matter before them. There is always some backbiting among politicians, especially those in the same party, because they are all fighting to be the prime minister’s most trusted Minister. However, when it comes to reciprocity they are all in it up to their tongues.

This is not limited to Trinidad and Tobago or the Caribbean, it is part of global politics. Caribbean governments are particularly autocratic and members have no choice but to support one- another knowing that it is the only way to stay in power and enjoy the perquisites, pleasures and prospects of politics. In fact, the reason all Caribbean people drive on the left is because we have no rights.

What was funny is that one of the government politicians in the recusal rampage took the high ground by criticising a representative of the other party with, “Well at least we recuse ourselves. You never did that.” Neither of them saw the big picture or what we call “same khaki pants” or worse, the pot calling the kettle black. Can this ever stop? Will politics and politicians go above partisanship or beyond reciprocal scratching and bashing? Given that they all leave their claw marks and paw prints on the entire population and not just on those who voted against them,  the question is “Who will bell the cat?” If I had the opportunity, I would do it with a “cat-o-nine tails.” Or we can ask, “Who will guard the guards?” and the answer is, “Oh Guard Oh!” But, as a writer, I have to stick to my computer and continue to catch my ASUS.

What was also funny was the reaction by one of my friends who called me to share his anger, “Tony, you hear these two ministers refuse to take part in a cabinet meeting? You think they could have done that in Dr Eric Williams cabinet, or even Mia Mottley or Andrew Holness? Man, Dr Williams would have kicked them out shouting, ‘If you don’t like it, get to hell out of here.’”

I decided to play a little joke on him by saying, “You’re wrong about that. The word is not pronounced ‘ree-fuse’ but ‘reff-use’. It is spelt “r-e-f-u-s-e” but in this case it was not used to say “no”, but to mean garbage.” He was taken aback and sought confirmation but I, not being a priest, answered his, “Garbage? You sure boy” with, “Yes, man. The whole thing turned out to be like two rubbish bins liming on the road. All you get is trash talk.”

He was not convinced. “Boy you like stupidness you know. You talking about the Government and the Opposition of our country and you say that all they do is talk nonsense?” “Look, you ask me a question and I answered you,” I responded in my toughest voice. “I know if I add some sugar and spice to what happened I can make it smell better, but I don’t have thyme for political rubbish. They might have started as people intent on doing the best for their country but now they taking all the time they have to do the best for themselves.”

My friend was upset and sought an answer: “Tony boy you know some of them, you even teach at least one of them and went to school with another one. I am sure you never encourage that!” “You’re totally right,” I answered, “They are like people on the garbage truck. They pick it up as they go along.”

I then apologised to my friend but, by that time, he was even more angry than I was. “Tony, you dam right. I remember when you tell me about the politician who was in court and swear on the Bible he would tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and then he give them three different answers.” I added another oldie, “What’s the difference between a politician and a flying pig?” He answered, “Well pig does taste good however you cook it?” “Nice try,” I replied, “but the answer is the letter ‘f’.”

*Tony Deyal was last seen telling this joke. The prime minister sought help from the spouse of the house and asked, “When I’m on the platform you think I should put even more fire into my speeches?” The spouse quickly replied, “No. I think you should put more of your speeches into the fire!”    

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