Monday, 18 February 2013 02:30
By Colin Sampson
The shattering news that four senators representing the ruling United Progressive Party in the Upper House have aligned themselves with opposition members to defeat an important government Bill has broken like a tsunami over the political landscape of Antigua & Barbuda.
Washed away with the receding flood waters were the last shreds of any pretence that Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer is in control of a unified political organization.
It is not to say that Spencer and the other top brass of the UPP had not received timely warning of the impending disaster. The latest act of rebellion came mere weeks after two government senators had taken up common cause with opposition members in respect of excessively high salaries being paid to certain operatives within the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting – formerly one of the prime minister’s portfolios. In doing so, these senators were clearly providing that proverbial “word to the wise” – a clear message that should have warned an attentive leadership that all was not well within the ranks of their party.
It can be argued that this earlier event did not bear the critical import of the latest act of defiance. When Senators Mansoor and Stuart stood up in the Senate Chamber and sharply criticized their own administration there was no vote pending; their remarks were actually peripheral to the main issue of the day. Seen in the context of the polarized political culture of Antigua & Barbuda, however, their most unusual behavior caused much more than a stir to ripple across the surface of the national political scene.
Of course it might have been that the political leadership of the UPP, absorbed as they are with their onerous and heroic efforts to lift the ship of state singlehandedly off the reefs upon which they have run it, are too busy to take note of loud distress signals coming from their own crew. On the other hand, this same leadership cadre may simply be too dense to appreciate the significance of the message. Yet another possibility – and actually quite likely – is that the UPP itself, as an organization, does not possess the internal mechanisms that will equip it to perform as an effective political player.
That this latter postulate may well be the truth of the matter has been more than amply demonstrated by the more recent – and more politically damaging – outright act of defiance in the Senate. Let us out of decency allocate sufficient intelligence to the leaders of the UPP to permit them the motor skills to walk and chew gum at the same time. On such a basis one must conclude that had these worthies been properly apprised of the situation facing their party they would have taken notice of it, and taken some sort of preventative action.
One can therefore only conclude, with all due respect for the collective intelligence of the people whose job it is to guide our ship of state, that the overburdened UPP leadership cadre walked full tilt into the brick wall of yet another avoidable political debacle because – submerged as they are in the details of high-level administration – they also have no functioning ground-level political organization keeping them abreast of conditions in the various strata of their party.
The actual events on that fateful day when four government senators joined with their opposition colleagues to return the Citizenship by Investment Programme (CIP) Bill back to the Lower House for the second time tell the tale.
It is most significant to note that the final vote was taken by division upon application by opposition Senator Arthur Nibbs, who was uncertain as to whether the “ayes” did really “have it”. In the normal world according to the conventional UPP wisdom, that alone should have been a signal for any government senators who had mumbled their response to the initial “voice” vote to stand up and be counted for the “blue” side. Instead, to the astonishment of the Leader of Government Business in the Senate, four colleagues he had until that moment fondly imagined were on his team resolutely affirmed their will that the flawed CIP Bill be returned to the Lower House for further amendment.
The defiance shown by these senators is all the more remarkable in that as individuals appointed at the discretion of the prime minister their tenure in the Upper House is entirely dependent on his favor. Clearly, then, a message of great force and critical relevance to the health and future survival of the United Progressive Party has been sent to a leadership group that has clearly been asleep at the wheel in a strategic sense.
That a wakeup call has been received is evident. That the wakeup call has unleashed what can only be described as a state of “controlled panic” within the shocked UPP is more than clear. In an entertaining demonstration of the truth of the old proverb: “Let sleeping dogs lie,” the frantic party promptly started snapping in all directions – mainly at the rebel senators. “Usually reliable sources” first threatened then boldly forecast unspecified disciplinary action against the offending quartet.
Those same usually reliable sources later proved remarkably unreliable when they indicated that Prime Minister Spencer would display his leadership credentials last Friday evening with an announcement regarding the uncertain future of the Gang of Four. Even the national broadcast medium ABS Radio & TV was fooled, announcing an event that never occurred.
In the end the Office of the Prime Minister issued some gobbledygook to the effect that the UPP political leader viewed the action of the rebellious group as a matter to be handled with utmost urgency. However, sober judgment etcetera were in order, and so the required “urgent action” must necessarily be deferred pending the PM’s mid-week return from yet another of those critically important Regional Heads of Government confabulations.
The “announcement that never was” should have followed intense consultations that took up the bulk of Friday afternoon. Eventually, the content and tenor of the discussions will leak into the public domain. An anxious public may rest assured that a significant portion of the debate will have surrounded the complete disarray that any wholesale dismissal and appointment of senators would create within the ruling party as it prepares to face general elections constitutionally due barely a year from now.
Another quite intriguing sub-plot will have surrounded the strange behavior of two stalwart campaigning senators who conveniently failed to appear for the vote, claiming other rather more pressing engagements. Also noted will have been the unobtrusive absence of Dr Edmond Mansoor, one of the UPP’s “bellwether” senators. In these lights, there will be some doubt as to whether the “Gang of Four” should not more properly be dubbed the “Gang of Six” or maybe even the “Gang of Seven”.
All of this will serve to drive home the point that the ruling party is deeply divided, and may quite possibly have slipped beyond the control of an out-of-touch Baldwin Spencer. The hapless UPP may now be paying the price for forcing through the now infamous CIP Bill over the strong opposition of so many of its own supporters. The party may also be suffering the consequences of a long term lack of leadership that has crippled its ability to respond effectively to political challenges.
Baldwin Spencer’s midweek utterances on this matter must necessarily be viewed as a landmark event, a veritable watershed moment in his political career. His critics as well as his supporters will be hanging on his every word.