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TT Humanist Association Statement on 2005-2006 Budget Speech04 October 2005 • 859 words
Prime Minister Patrick Manning's trashing of the Draft Gender Policy shows that he is not serious about making Trinidad and Tobago a developed nation by 2020 or any other year. The attitude and ideas behind the rejection of the policy undermine three key developmental criteria: democracy, rationality, and liberalism.
In his Budget presentation, Mr Manning claimed that "there are certain recommendations in the document to which the government does not and will not subscribe." Although he did not spell it out, he was accepting without query the claims made by certain Christian groups - primarily the Pentecostal "Lawyers for Jesus" and the Roman Catholic "Emmanuel Community" - that the Draft Policy advocated abortion and same-sex marriages.
Both these assertions are false. In the first place, abortion in Trinidad and Tobago is already legal, once the purpose is to preserve the physical and mental health of the mother and once two medical practitioners grant approval. What the Draft called for was discussion to have this vague law properly reformed after public consultation. In the second place, the Draft only calls for the Government to facilitate public debate on the promotion of and protection of fundamental human rights and freedoms of all persons, irrespective of sexual preference or orientation.
In practical terms, same-sex marriages in our society is a non-starter - not least because there is no religious leader here with the moral courage to argue that homosexuals should have the same rights as heterosexuals. What the Prime Minister and the religious lobbyists are essentially saying is that homosexuals should not even have the right to hold a job. So the Prime Minister took a decision which has no basis in reality and which promotes intolerance for both women and homosexuals.
The response from the religious fundamentalists has been instructive. The Catholic Commission for Social Justice has praised Mr Manning for his "advocacy of a moral stand". This is because they never wanted any real discussion of the issues, since they know that in any debate where rationality, evidence and ethics are the criteria, they are sure to come off badly. In this regard, the CCSJ rejects the more modern philosophical approach of the Vatican and promotes the medieval perspective by which the Roman Catholic Church once operated.
It is not surprising that this attitude should resonate with a Prime Minister who recommends "going to worship" and "offering of prayers and supplications" as policy recommendations in a national Budget. Mr Manning carries our nation backward by ignoring the fact that Parliament is not a pulpit and that a budget speech should not be turned into a sermon. By kow-towing to the demands of religious fundamentalists, Mr. Manning is of course playing politics, but such politicking is not only superficial and cynical but probably also misguided. The assumption is that allowing discussion on these issues would lose him votes from the religious constituencies. But, in a society where voting patterns are based heavily on race and where the floating votes hold the key to victory, it seems likely that such issues do not have an impact on voting behaviour. Moreover, promoting such discussion might, in fact, win support from the floating voters who are more likely to be open-minded and progressive.
Mr Manning is also undermining his own Ministry through his action. In May, 2005, the Ministry of Culture and Gender Affairs published a print ad in the newspapers which read, in part, "The Draft is now being reviewed by the Ministry and related agencies, to ensure its alignment with Government policy...The Ministry appreciates the continued interest in the overall process by members of the public, and looks forward to the speedy but studied approach to this national dialogue which it respects as mandatory for good democratic governance."
By trashing the Draft, the Prime Minister has stopped the official discussion in its tracks and proved that he does not believe in national dialogue as mandatory for good governance. Moreover, while it may seem that an effective Gender Policy is far removed from the pressing problems of our society, such as crime and poverty, there is a strong correlation between women's rights and economic prosperity and a less violent society.
Put another way, the most backward societies in the world are those where women have inferior status. Data from the World Values survey (1995-2001) show that liberal attitudes in respect to issues such as abortion rights, divorce, and homosexuality are correlated with social stability, whereas conservative attitudes to all these issues are correlated with poverty, official corruption, and high rates of societal violence. Unfortunately, the religious fundamentalists in our society consider the first three issues to be far greater evils than the last three - and the Prime Minister seems to agree with them.
As long as this is so, and as long as our leaders do not even allow debate on such controversial matters, then we will inevitably fail in our quest to build a society where most citizens are free from want, fear, and injustice. If Mr Manning is really serious about attaining developed-country status, he will re-open debate on the Draft Gender Policy.