The standard of political debate in the Caribbean – indeed, the high standard of conduct which citizens rightly expect of persons elected to public office – sank to a sickening new low this week as a result of an unfortunate incident in the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago.
As the House of Representatives was debating a government-filed motion of no-confidence against Leader of the Opposition Dr Keith Rowley, a representative of the ruling People’s Partnership coalition delivered some low blows, which were clearly intended to inflict serious damage on the target, but caused collateral damage to others as well.
Against the backdrop of an approaching general election, the House heard Tobago East MP Vernella Alleyne-Toppin tell what she described as “a true story” involving the rape of a Tobagonian girl by the best friend of her father, and a resulting pregnancy, which produced a son, who “today is the aspirant to lofty office”, and is “aggressive” and “arrogant” because of the circumstances of his birth.
Alleyne-Toppin, a junior minister in the administration of Prime Minister Kamla Persaud-Bissessar, did not stop there. Making a case why Persaud-Bissessar remains the better choice to lead Trinidad and Tobago, Alleyne-Toppin also told the House that the product of this rape had himself raped a girl when he was a young man and a child too had resulted.
Alleyne-Toppin’s remarks have naturally triggered public outrage, prompting her to apologize “to everyone who felt uncomfortable or outraged” without letting up on Dr Rowley whom she contended had questions to answer.
What undoubtedly would have been also shocking about this incident is that the protagonist is a woman. Female politicians are not generally associated with such behaviour. It is usually men.
Ironically, in offering her apology, Alleyne-Toppin said: “At no time was I intending to cause pain or suffering, or to cause people to reopen old wounds of trauma they may have at some time experienced”.
Notwithstanding this apology, her statements have had precisely this effect, as confirmed by the reactions of victims of rape and sexual assault who spoke to the press.
A woman with whom Dr Rowley has a 45 year old son, and is widely believed to be the person Alleyne-Toppin was referring to, responded by labelling the story “a lie”. However, Dr Rowley’s mother and father, whose names were similarly tarnished by the allegations, are deceased and unable to comment.
The unfortunate incident raises an important question. Why was Alleyne-Toppin allowed to use the cover of parliamentary privilege to deliver such a vicious attack on another honourable member? The mere suggestion that a Member of Parliament is a rapist, without strong supporting evidence, is unparliamentary and in contravention of the Standing Orders governing parliamentary debate.
From a reference Alleyne-Toppin made, the Speaker was in the chair at the time. It would be interesting to hear why he did not stop her. At the time, Dr Rowley and other Opposition MPs were not in their seats, having walked out of the House earlier. It is therefore likely that because no one was there from the Opposition to raise objection and demand withdrawal of the offensive remarks that she was allowed to get away unchallenged. Still, we believe the Speaker could have intervened because the presentation was in poor taste.
This incident is of obvious interest to Barbados because, in the not so distant past, MPs have used parliamentary privilege to launch vicious attacks, not only on each other, but also on defenseless citizens.
This incident calls attention to the need for a review of parliamentary privilege to prevent a similar example here. Parliamentarians are styled “honourable” and it should be reflected in their words and actions. This issue also merits attention in current debate on improving governance in the Caribbean.
The downside of such behaviour by politicians is that it reinforces the negative perception of politics as a nasty business to be avoided at all costs. It also deepens public mistrust in the political process at a time when a high level of confidence is necessary if we are to effectively tackle major challenges facing individual countries and the region as a whole.
It was a dark day in the politics of Trinidad and Tobago this week. We hope the Barbados House of Assembly never sees an example of such behaviour. The incident is a call for us to be vigilant. As the saying goes, when thy neighbour’s house is on fire, beware of thine own!