?The Prime Minister's statement in Parliament yesterday, ostensibly on the issue of the relationship between church and state, was extraordinary in a number of ways.
At the most mundane level was the fact that the Speaker allowed the Prime Minister to address the House for 53 minutes–which is well beyond the time that an ordinary minister would be allowed to speak. The second way in which the address marked something of a watershed in the life of T&T's Parliament was the fact that the Prime Minister, for the first time, laid bare his own religious inclinations. Mr Manning made very personal references to the hymns his mother sang at home when he was growing up and the fact that he has sought religious guidance of a very special kind from born-again preachers. It needs to be made very clear that every citizen of this country has a right to "freedom of conscience and religious belief and observance" as this is one of the enshrined rights and freedoms in T&T's 1976 Republican Constitution. It could never be that the Prime Minister enjoys less freedom of religious belief than every other citizen of this country. The problem arises when the religious beliefs and observances of a politician begin to infringe on the politician's secular management of the State.
For all the passionate defence of his beliefs and his right to seek spiritual guidance from whomever he wishes, the Prime Minister revealed that the Cabinet which he chairs went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the born-again Christian group in question got legal access to the particular plot of land in the Heights of Guanapo. Mr Manning made the point, quite effectively, that the transfer of state land to religious bodies had become something of a tradition, outlining nearly 20 instances of such. But it is likely that the Prime Minister would be hard-pressed to find in the post-independence history of this country any other instance in which a Cabinet of this republic took two decisions in 15 months to effect the transfer of state land to a small religious body. The second decision became necessary because the planning authorities turned down the first application to have the land sub-divided. And, even given the entire resources of the Public Service available to him, the Prime Minister may be hard-pressed to find another instance in which the Cabinet approved a quit notice to occupants of land that the Cabinet clearly wished to make available to this church. And it was the Prime Minister who revealed to Parliament yesterday the fact that the Government was prepared to take legal action to get the squatters to vacate this special plot of land and the intervention of a "benefactor" who paid sums to avoid a confrontation.
The fact that the Cabinet was so amenable to bending over backwards to accommodate this congregation–even in the absence of the Prime Minister from its meetings on the subject–must be of some significance. It is extraordinary as well that the Prime Minister seemed to have used the statement to send a message to the Town and Country Planning Division. Mr Manning said that the division had taken a decision not to approve construction on the land based on a "false premise" that the land did not belong to the individual making the application. But, according to the Prime Minister, as it now turns out the Cabinet Note had been brought to the attention of Town and Country Planning and "they are now in a position to conduct the business properly." This might be construed as a not-so-subtle instruction to the planning division to approve the ongoing construction of the $30 million church on the land and do so quickly. The question that the Prime Minister must answer–and we would never be so bold as to set a deadline for him–is has he allowed the relationship with his spiritual adviser to affect the process with respect to the distribution of state land?