By Jomo Sanga Thomas*
(“Plain Talk”, Feb. 21, 2020)
“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” — William Shakespeare; King Henry VI Part 2.
“Woe unto you also, ye lawyers! for ye lade men with burdens too grievous to be borne.” — Jesus; The Bible, Luke 11:46.
“He is no lawyer who cannot take two sides.” — Charles Lamb
“The power of the lawyer is in the uncertainty of the law.” — Jeremy Bentham
“The world has its fling at lawyers sometimes, but its very denial is an admission. It feels, what I believe to be the truth, that of all secular professions this has the highest standards.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
In yet another Budget Debate, PM Gonsalves, himself a lawyer and the father of three children who are lawyers, took a swing at lawyers who, according to him, are cheating the system by paying little or no taxes. Lawyers, we were told, owe about EC$11 million in taxes; some refuse to pay over to the government the VAT which they collected.
One is compelled to wonder why is our Prime Minister always picking on lawyers and not other professionals: doctors, engineers, architects or big business executives. After all, the country was alerted to the criminal behaviour of the moneyed class when the Comptroller of Inland Revenue disclosed that over EC$300 million dollars was owed by delinquent taxpayers.
Why then don’t we hear how much is owed by doctors, engineers or this or that business house or executive? Or how much VAT they have not paid? Have readers ever wondered why the PM consistently picks on lawyers?
Before we go to the answer, let’s clear the air. This is no defence of lawyers. All those persons who refuse to pay their fair share of taxes should be brought to heel. And we know that the Inland Revenue Department uses a multiplicity of measures and methods to get our people to comply with our tax laws. We know as well that most citizens don’t like to pay taxes. We know too that every citizen wants the best roads, schools and health services. So, the less taxes we pay, the fewer services the country will be able to afford.
We are at one with Oliver Wendell Holmes, the former US Supreme Court Justice, when he declared his support for the payment of taxes with the following: “I love paying taxes because with my taxes I buy civilisation.”
For our part, we have sued at least two lawyers who were accused by clients of cheating them out of substantial sums of money. Had it not been for timidity of other clients, we could have sued more lawyers thus breaking the wall of secrecy and complicity in the fraternity. Therefore, this is no defence of lawyers’ greed.
However, the nagging and troubling question resurfaces each time the PM demands the private files of citizens (lawyers) and singled them out for negative commentary and the wrath of the public. Why pick on lawyers when the ULP has historically been a party of lawyers. Ole Labour had Milton Cato, Arthur Williams, Grafton Isaacs, St. Clair Dacon, Arthur Woods el al to current coterie of Gonsalves and his son, Camillo, Saboto, Carlos James, Rochel Forde. Though not yet called to the bar, even Debbie Charles and Luke Browne sport law degrees.
So, what’s the PM’s obsession with lawyers? He presented the answer during the Budget Debate. He told the nation that there are some lawyers who go to court, turn away from judge and jury, look to the gallery and play politician. By this statement, we can clearly glean that our PM is primarily opposed to those lawyer politicians who talk against his government.
The clear and distinct lesson from PM Gonsalves’ budgetary assault is as follows: Keep your damn mouth shut. If you play politician and make critical comments against me or my government, I will do all to turn the public against you and shame you. So, shut up.
Now we know that Hitler despised communists, Jews, homosexuals, blacks and gypsies. We also know that Europeans hate Africans, running from the mayhem created by European destabilisers on the African continent, coming to their countries. We also know too that Trump scorns and loves to hate Muslims and Hispanics fleeing American imposed dictators in Latin America.
We know as well that scapegoating may serve the narrow interest of a leader or party, but it is never in the interest of most people or the nation. Therefore, all patriots must raise their voices against the infantile attacks against lawyers. Beware: Angela Davis was correct in saying, “If they come for me in the morning, they will come for you at night.” It is unbecoming and irresponsible for the leader of any country to resort to crassness to make a point about non-payment of taxes. Rather, the Inland Revenue Department should reinvigorate its efforts to collect from all tax cheats and delinquents.
Rosa Luxenberg correctly noted that “Freedom for the majority, those in government, is no freedom at all. Democracy is judged by the tolerance and respect for minority views and opinions.” We dare to add contrarian, half-baked, and even wrong ideas should all be allowed to contend allowing for settlement in the proverbial “marketplace of ideas”.
If PM Gonsalves is allowed to continue to unleash these improper verbal attacks against one set of tax delinquents and not others, it may cause a chilling effect on free speech and association in this country. The trend is troubling. At his party’s 25th anniversary rally, PM Gonsalves barked this command to his supporters, “All renegades, turn coats and castaways are dead — politically.” Last Tuesday, Julian Francis called on ULP supporters to stone persons who mount political platforms in opposition to the governing party.
Right-thinking Vincentians know that these statements about lawyers are intended to chill speech. Those about death and stones are reckless incitement to violence. We forget the 1994 election cycle when political violence ripped through the land, to our eternal regret.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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