It is not regularly practised in our political culture, but if there was ever a time that T&T needed bipartisanship it is now.
Unfortunately, the consultation and collaboration that are key elements of bipartisanship were absent on Friday when the Tobago House of Assembly (Amendment) Bill 2021 passed by a division of 21 for, 18 against in the House of Representatives. That margin highlighted the extent of the partisan divide hindering national progress.
The aim of the bill, which still faces the hurdle of the Senate, is to break the deadlock in the Tobago House of Assembly following elections last month that ended in a six-six tie between the PNM and the PDP.
It is a situation that is crying out for negotiations between the two sides, some effort to achieve consensus on the best way forward. However, with neither party prepared to budge, a crisis persists that is affecting the governance of Tobago at a very critical time.
The THA impasse isn’t the only situation where partisan inflexibility is holding up progress. Important anti-crime bills have been defeated in the Lower House for the same reason.
The exception, just over a week ago when the Evidence (Amendment) Bill got unanimous support, came against the backdrop of public pressure on legislators following the kidnap and murder of Andrea Bharatt.
But we can’t go on this way.
This country is being held back because the main political parties insist on adhering to their ideologies and platforms even at the expense of the national interest.
The prevailing partisan rancour is dangerous in a small island developing state navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and economic turmoil.
It is not that there are any stark differences in outlook and policy between the two main parties, the PNM and the UNC. In fact, the plans and programmes which successive governments led by these parties have brought before the country was developed by the professional public service. Whichever administration is in power simply adds its perspective to these plans.
But tribalism and intense competition drive T&T’s partisan polarisation, so representatives on both sides of the parliamentary chamber, without exception, prefer to toe the party line rather than embrace bipartisanship.
It is not that our political representatives do not have the capacity for bipartisanship. In August 1999, then prime minister Basdeo Panday led a team of government and opposition members that investigated problems that affected the T&T Police Service. The opposition leader at that time was the late Patrick Manning.
That bipartisan team worked in conjunction with a technical team and produced a report that identified problems within the police service and proposed recommendations for legislative and administrative policy reform.
This led to the drafting of four pieces of legislation—The Constitution (Amendment) Bill, The Police Service Bill, The Police Service Regulations, and The Police Complaints Authority Bill—which were all introduced in Parliament by April 2004.
T&T is now at a juncture where that level of negotiation and agreement is called for to deal with all the problems the novel coronavirus has brought our way.
Otherwise, divided we will fall.