Mrs. Lawrence: “Your living is determined not so much by what life brings to you as by the attitude you bring to life; not so much by what happens to you as by the way your mind looks at what happens.” – Kahlil Gibran.
His humility, his indomitable strength in the face of adversity and challenges, his resolute calm in crisis, his leadership skills displayed over the years from his youth, his youthful and other experiences throughout Guyana and around the world, his religious orientation, his educational achievements, his vast knowledge of the history and development of both party and country and his political acumen have all served to fashion the honourable Robert H. O. Corbin, the former Leader of the Parliamentary Opposition of Guyana and the current Leader of the People National Congress Reform.
He has given distinguished public service for the past forty-seven years as a teacher, public servant, youth leader, professional social worker, politician, legislator, Minister of Government, Deputy Prime Minister, a member of the Guyana Elections Commission and he also had the distinction of being sworn in and acting on one occasion as the President of Guyana. More specially, he served continuously as a Member of this National Assembly from August, 1973 to 28th October, 1997 and from 1st April, 2001 to 15th January, 2012, when he demitted office as Leader of the Opposition and formally announced his retirement from national electoral politics. His service in this National Assembly spanned a period of thirty-eight years, during which he was an elected Member for thirty-five years, nine months and twenty-six days. I am, therefore, honoured and consider it as a privilege to move the motion standing in my name, entitled, “Recognising the Contribution to the National Assembly of the Parliament of Guyana by Former Leader of the Opposition, the Hon. Robert ‘Hubert’ Orlando Corbin”. [Mrs. Backer: It is Herman.] …Robert Herman Orlando Corbin.
In moving this motion it is incumbent upon me to make a few remarks, not because I knew him from birth, but because I just baptised him as “Hubert”. I have had the privilege of serving for several years with him in this honourable House and of working and travelling with him throughout the length and breadth of Guyana. There are several special moments in the history of a nation when the stars ordain the birth of outstanding personalities. Unlike the biblical events surrounding nativity, however, wise men are not available to predict greatness. We, lesser mortals, are left to evaluate their contributions, and after, sometimes, harsh and subjective analysis rush to judgement, most times, after they are gone to the great beyond. The words of Mark Antony, in Act III, Scene II of Julius Caesar, by the English playwright William Shakespeare, ring through, and I quote: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones”. The personalities are therefore obliged to depart the stage of life before acknowledgment and acclaim are conferred, if considered deserving. Regrettably, such posthumous activity deprives the beneficiary of the pleasure and appreciation of the conferment. Fortunately, this National Assembly has seen it fit to break with tradition, and it is commendable that we have decided today to give honour where it is due and recognise the contributions of two long serving Members of this House who gave yeoman service to their parties, this Parliament and to the people of Guyana. I speak of Mr. Reepu Daman Persaud and Mr. Robert Herman Orlando Corbin. We solemnly acknowledge their contributions, pay tribute in the appropriate manner and say “thank you for what you have done for your country”.
Robert Herman Orlando Corbin was neither amongst the first category of men, described by Shakespeare, has having been born great, nor deterred, by having greatness thrust upon him. On the contrary, he was born of humble parentage, in the Upper Demerara River, the mining town of Linden, on 15th February, 1948, a son of Vice Dudley Corbin, a boatbuilder, tug captain and, later, bauxite worker and, his mother, Eva Augusta Corbin, who spent her spinster years working in the exclusive segregated servant quarters of the expatriate staff of the then Demerara Bauxite Company (DEMBA). Yes, Sir, he was born in a British colony at a time when the expatriate community at Linden, then known as Mackenzie, before we learnt of the South African experience, practised segregation. Indeed, Mr. Corbin has often remarked that it was that experience of segregated Watooka, where only the white folks could roam and native had to have a DEMBA pass to traverse, which fashioned his political outlook and helped to determine his political journey from youth.
As we review and evaluate his contribution, it would be reasonable to assume that he made a reality of or emulated W. Hawley-Bryant’s composition, “The Song of Guyana’s Children”, and made the chorus of that song his personal anthem, and it states:
“Born in the land of the mighty Roraima,
Land of great rivers and far stretching sea;
So like the mountain, the sea and the river
Great, wide and deep in our lives would we be;”
And the chorus, which I theme his anthem, goes on to state:
“Onward, upward, may we ever go
Day by day in strength and beauty grow,
Till at length we each of us may show,
What Guyana’s sons and daughters can be.”
There is no doubt that Mr. Robert H. O. Corbin has illustrated by, his shining example, what a son of Guyana could achieve – could achieve, Sir, through study, dedicated service and hard work.
His early upbringing was rooted in the Presbyterian church where he spent many years actively working in the youth ministry of that church and in the Youth for Christ Movement while as a student of the Mackenzie High School. During those years he had an opportunity to meet and exchange views with young people of the Presbyterian church throughout Guyana. It is perhaps that exposure and his revulsion at the discriminatory and segregation practices of DEMBA, at Mackenzie, that motivated and shaped his active involvement in politics from his youth.
He became actively involved in the youth arm of the People’s National Congress, People’s National Congress Youth Organisation (PNCYO), later named the Young Socialist Movement (YSM), an organisation in which he spent all of his youth serving at every level, from an ordinary member to National Chairman, from 1966 to 1977. He was widely recognised as a youth leader, skilled in organising, mobilising and training young people for nation building. During this period he held positions of Executive Member, General Secretary and, later, National Chairman of the YSM. He also headed the party’s youth cadet training and ideological programme at Cuffy Ideological Institute on the Soesdyke-Linden Highway, during which period he led several youth brigades to communities in Guyana to undertake self-help and community development projects. It was his work in this organisation which propelled him to the forefront of national youth leadership, gained him special recognition from Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham and obviously aided him when he was appointed Minister of Youth and National Service and later as Chairman of the National Mashramani Celebrations Committee for several years.
Indeed, he led by example, as I have been so often reminded by former members of the Guyana National Service who vividly remember his insistence in participating in the great march from Kimbia Training Centre through the Berbice savannahs to Georgetown in March, 1975, a distance of two hundred and seventy kilometres, despite, at that time, he had been suffering from an ailment in his right leg. Today, as I travel throughout the length and breadth of this country, I still meet people who readily identify with Mr. Robert Corbin, their cadre leader, and are all willing to speak of their many learning experiences and times of camaraderie shared with him. His commitment to youth has never wavered and as he has stated, since his 2007 congress address to party members, it was this commitment that would have been a motivating factor for him to hand over the baton of leadership of the party he now leads.
This commitment is best captured in the words of a youth that were published in the letter column of the Stabroek News of Wednesday, 12th November, 2008, and I quote:
“His vision is consistent with needs of young people across the country, the vision of a better tomorrow. Evidence of his determination, commitment and passion for the development of youths is in the implementation of some aspects of the Youth Empowerment Scheme (YES) which has already benefited quite a number of youths and parents in many of our communities. His vision is second to none and includes all Guyanese regardless of race, creed or political affiliation to quench their thirst for a brighter future. His vision also speaks of a transformed Guyana, recognising that the onerous demands of managing this country require the collective effort of all, building strong families with healthy values, strengthening communities, enhancing our educational system and reducing the many ills in our society. It offers hope through opportunities for persons to develop themselves, intellectually, socially, culturally and economically. I am encouraging everyone to read his 2004 and 2006 congress speeches.”
This is the real vision of a true visionary.
Mr. Corbin made full use of his schooling at the Christianburg Government School and the Mackenzie High School, from which he graduated at sixteen years of age, in 1964, with one hundred per cent passes in all six subjects that he wrote at the London General Certificate of Examinations (GCE), but regrettably was too young to be classified as an interim teacher. He had to initially accept the lower paying appointment as pupil teacher because of his age. He soon left the teaching profession and joined the civil service as a Customs Officer, working in the long room and the waterfront.
The prohibition of civil service, being involved in politics, never deterred his activism in youth politics and he continued his involvement, despite the risk to his employment prospects. It is well-known in party circles that in 1968 the late Forbes Burnham identified him to be amongst the list of PNC candidates for Parliament only to discover, after submission of his name, that he was not yet twenty-one years of age and too young to be qualified as a Member of this House. According to those who knew of this episode, Burnham remarked that his voice was bigger than his years. The Hansard will reveal that the vote to reduce the eligibility age to eighteen years was defeated in this House in 1968 to 1973 Parliament, but, by that time, however, Mr. Corbin was already twenty-five years of age when he first entered this National Assembly in 1973. It was not until after the 1973 Elections that the age of majority was reduced to eighteen years, under the leadership of Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham.
Mr. Corbin had, however, continued his education at the University of Guyana, graduated with social work and, by the time he had become a Member of Parliament, brought with him the rich experience of working as a social worker between 1969 and 1973 in many hinterland and rural communities of Guyana, promoting socioeconomic development. That experience obviously exposed him to the plight of the ordinary man and definitely shaped the manner in which he gave public service over the years in the many offices to which he was appointed, as Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. It is well known that he continued his education despite his parliamentary schedule and graduated from the University of Guyana with a Bachelor of Laws Degree (LLB) and from the Hugh Wooding Law School with the Legal Education Certificate (LEC) of the Caribbean Council of Legal Education.
Mr. Corbin’s commitment to party, the PNC, now PNCR, is unquestionable. He has been a member of the Central Executive Committee of the People’s National Congress for forty-two years and has served as its Senior Vice Chairman, General Secretary, Chairman and Leader. He was elected Chairman of the party at its biennial congress in August, 2000, and was returned at the biennial congress in August, 2002, for a further two-year term, but consequent upon the sudden death of Mr. Hugh Desmond Hoyte, former President of Guyana, he performed the functions of party leader, acting until he was elected Leader of the People’s National Congress Reform at a special congress held on 1st February, 2003.
Shortly after Mr. Corbin announced that he would not have been a candidate for the presidency at the 2011 General and Regional Elections, a publication in the Guyana Review of Thursday, April 29, 2010, stated as follows:
“One of only a handful of Burnham’s old guards still remains in active politics. Corbin, now 62, assumed the leadership of the PNC on February 1st, 2003, following the death of Hugh Desmond Hoyte on December 22nd, of the previous year. His accession to the office meant, among other things, a generational shift in the leadership of the PNC. Corbin, among others, has sat at the feet of Burnham as a member of the Young Socialist Movement (YSM), the PNC’s youth arm. Emerging as one of the Kabaka’s most trusted lieutenants, Corbin was rewarded with a succession of influential party and ministerial posts which pointed to the likelihood that he might one day lead the PNC and perhaps even acceded to the presidency.
The death of Forbes Burnham in 1985, as much as the PNC’s loss of power in 1992, radically altered the playing field and by the time Corbin became the Comrade Leader, having completed law studies at the University of Guyana and the University of the West Indies, the PNC was no longer what it had been two decades earlier. Loss of political power had been attended by an erosion of the grass roots party which Corbin, himself, had help Burnham build.
As party leader, moreover, Corbin did not come remotely close to inheriting the sheer authority which Burnham had enjoyed, or even the public which the more austerer Desmond Hoyte had managed to garner, much more, as a longstanding and well respected member of Burnham’s Cabinet than as a party functionary. If during the earliest period of his tenure his entitlement was not openly challenged, Corbin was compelled to settle for the reality that he would be first among equals rather than a supreme leader in the Burnham mould. Quite simply the part which he now led included at least a handful of contemporaries who would have felt entitled to be treated as equals.”
What the writer did not know was that Mr. Corbin himself frowned on the concept of maximum leader and, indeed, encouraged an atmosphere of full, frank and open debate among equals. Some felt that, perhaps, he was too liberal in his interpretation of this concept. I agree with the writer, however, who stated that:
“Arguable, therefore, there were certain particular expectations of Corbin when he assumed the leadership of the PNC”.
Anyone who remembers the atmosphere around this very National Assembly compound on the day of the state funeral of the late Mr. Hugh Desmond Hoyte would be aware that Mr. Robert Corbin held in his hand the key to stability within our society, or the door to open rebellion. He, however, placed Guyana first and stated clearly his goals and vision in his December 24, 2003, Christmas message. He stated:
“Ultimately it is the people of Guyana who must determine their destiny. As Leader of the People’s National Congress Reform I remain convinced that we can work together as a people to remove the scourge of racial prejudice and conflict and build a land where all Guyanese, irrespective of race, religion or cultural heritage can work together in peace and harmony for the development of our country and secure the future for the next generation.”
Delivering a speech on 27th August, 2004 to the 14th Biennial Congress of the party, he advocated that the warring major political parties “close the pages of the past and work resolutely for a bright and glorious future to bequeath a rich legacy to our future generations.”
Additionally, Sir, his address articulated the desirability of:
“…a Government that is as broad based as possible and that is flexible enough to bring on board its platform for the reform of governance, all ideas, all realistic proposals, all patriotic elements and all who are willing to work with us for a better Guyana.”
Some have suggested that this was Corbin the statesman, Sir, while others have argued, Corbin the political strategist seeking not only to put his personal stamp on the leadership of the People’s National Congress Reform (PNCR), but making a gambit for a share of political power for the party.
Those close to him knew, however, that he had an unwavering commitment to national reconciliation and genuine national development, a vision that was not shared by some of the other parties in Guyana at the time and it was the pursuit of this vision that may have caused him to sacrifice political popularity at the altar of political necessity. Nevertheless, Sir, he strove continuously to espouse the idea of shared governance and actively pursue a “One Guyana” platform to contest the 2006 General Elections which was the only elections he faced as presidential candidate. His failure to fully achieve success in 2006 did not cause him to divert from his cause and it was this driving commitment that eventually led to the formation of A Partnership for National Unity (APNU), prior to the last General and Regional Elections.
As one writer stated in the Stabroek News publication of Friday, June 15, 2012, under the caption, “APNU is a testimony to the leadership of Robert Corbin.” I quote, Sir:
“For those who are quick to judge and vilify I say, sometimes we have to demonstrate the capacity to take the high road and, as the saying goes, just ‘give jack he jacket.’
Mr. Corbin no doubt has made his share of mistakes, for it is human to do so, but we must acknowledge that he’s surely worth his salt. It is an irrefutable fact that he has spent many decades in public office, in which he served Guyana faithfully. His refusal to give up on the PNC in its most difficult times is unselfish and demonstrates his commitment to party. Mr. Corbin has been maligned and vilified many times over, but never quit on the country and party and has resisted the many temptations to seek greener pastures for his personal enrichment…and I ask his critics to judge objectively.”
Mr. Corbin’s own words speak for themselves and are reflected in his 2011 New Year’s Message to the nation as follows:
“…educational, social and recreational programmes for youth, including the reintroduction of the Guyana National Service; a Government that will ensure that public sector workers are paid wages and salaries that enable them to enjoy a decent standard of living; a Government that will take care of its senior citizens; in short, a Government capable of demonstrating the qualities of good governance and managing the affairs of our country in the interest of all Guyanese irrespective of race, religion or creed.
It is with this in mind that our Party has resolutely pursued the establishment of a broad partnership of the like-minded political forces as a first option to face the challenges of 2011. In this context I make bold to say that will all our efforts we can and will succeed in transforming Guyana. A new Government of National Unity, including the People’s National Congress Reform will be able to put Guyana on a sustainable path of development.
As Guyanese, let us in this significant year 2011 make it indeed, a Year of Redemption.”
The services of Mr. Corbin to this National Assembly and other areas of leadership, upon his ascension to this National Assembly, were many.
An elected Member of Parliament for over thirty-six years, from August 1973 to October 1997 and from 2001 to 2011, Mr. Corbin held a number of ministerial portfolios. Those included Parliamentary Secretary - Cooperatives and National Mobilisation, Parliamentary Secretary - Education, Social Development and Culture, Minister - Youth, Sports and National Service, Minister - Regional and National Development, Minister - Local Government, Deputy Prime Minister - Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Deputy Prime Minister - Public Utilities and Deputy Prime Minister - Works, Communications and Public Utilities. He was also Deputy Prime Minister between 1985 and an Opposition Member of Parliament between 1992 and 1997. He was Shadow Minister for Works, Communications and Regional Development. He was reelected to Parliament at the 2001 General Elections and was elected Leader of the Parliamentary Opposition on 2nd May, 2003.
The robust and well reasoned contributions made by Mr. Corbin to debates over his thirty-five years in this National Assembly are well known to us and fully recorded in the Hansard. He, however, notwithstanding the heat of any debate, remained relatively calm and polite which disarmed many of his opponents. The immediate past Speaker of the House, Mr. Ralph Ramkarran, had this to say:
“I had the opportunity to observe him at close range for ten years while I was Speaker. He was an able parliamentarian and a skilled debater. Apart from these qualities, he was unfailingly courteous. This made it quite difficult for me to limit him or disagree with his arguments. Whenever I did sometimes, bristling at my decision, he would graciously accept my ruling. Not always the case with other Members of the House.”
As a Member of this House, I recall his many initiatives, of which Mr. Ramkarran spoke, such as his attempt to have the Parliament meet urgently during the 2005 floods, his motions on the Lusignan Massacre and on the bankrupt Colonial Life Insurance Company (CLICO) issue to get the Government to repay money to those who suffered loss, to name a few.
As Minister, who reported to this House, he was also on the receiving end of criticism, but never failed to provide reasoned explanations.
He often reminisces that his experiences as Minister of Agriculture and the Development of National Dairy Development Programmes, under the then programme head, Dr. Steve Surujbally, and, more particularly, as Minister of Regional Development and Local Government, were among his most satisfying ones. On the other hand, he had mixed thoughts about the multifaceted challenges he faced as Minister responsible for the Guyana Airways Corporation (GAC) and the Guyana Electricity Corporation (GEC), now Guyana Power and Light Inc. (GPL). Among the pleasant memories, which he has shared with some of us, are those that he had as the head of national celebrations for Mashramani where he interacted with the many designers, calypsonians and other artistes on an annual basis and was exposed to the rich, cultural heritage which our nation offers to the world.
Sir, no one can dispute the fact that Mr. Robert Corbin was not an armchair politician. During his years of service, he travelled extensively throughout Guyana, acquiring vast knowledge of the needs, challenges and potential of the various communities and actively worked in many of them, promoting their development.
Despite his achievements in the many high offices held, he never lost touch with the common man. I have been privileged, Sir, to travel across the length and breadth of this country in his company and can testify to the number of Guyanese who remember him, not only as their youth leader or as Minister, but rather as Robert. The conversations can begin from shared youth activities to fishing, farming, hunting, sports and, most of all, the challenges of debates.
He has also ably led many delegations to various international conferences in pursuit of government and party, the earliest of which was as a member of the Guyana Delegation to the Non-Aligned Summit in 1970, held in Lusaka, Zambia. He has also effectively represented his party and country in numerous countries – Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas, and the Caribbean. Mr. R H.O. Corbin was also identified, Sir, with two other CARICOM Opposition leaders, by fellow Opposition leaders of the region at the CARICOM Heads of Government Summit in St. Lucia, some years ago, to represent, to that body, issues that affect opposition parties in the region. He recently concluded, however, that that was a ruse by Caribbean leaders to aid their colleague heads in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, at the time, and that the CARICOM leaders had absolutely no sincerity in their stated intentions. He also had the privilege of serving as a member of the Guyana Elections Commission and was, at the time of his demitting office, a member of the International Board of Parliamentary Network of World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).
A few years ago he had to be medivac for treatment overseas and the media reported that he had died. The God whom he served throughout his life, however, was not yet ready for him and gave him renewed energy to continue. For this, many of us were relieved and grateful. Whether it was that experience or others which motivated his decision to retire from national electoral politics, we do not know. What he has publicly stated on several occasions, however, has been noted.
Mr. Robert Corbin, a practising attorney-at-law will no doubt continue to give service to Guyanese in other areas of human activity. But we, in this House, have been enriched from his many contributions while he served up to the highest level of the land.
It is in recognition of that service that I take pride and pleasure in moving the motion which is laid in my name.
Before I take my seat, however, Mr. Speaker, kindly allow me to suggest that we seek to adorn the halls of this Parliament, beginning from the stairway, with photographs of our Members whom we honour, leaving a legacy, Sir, not only in words, but by also adding face to them, as the Chinese proverb says, “What I see, I believe.”
Thank you. [Applause]
Mrs. Lawrence (replying): Sir, the sentiments expressed here by both the Hon. Mrs. Catherine Hughes and the Hon. Mr. Samuel Hinds in honour of Robert Herman Orlando Corbin is in keeping with all that we have had of his contributions to his people, the National Assembly and his party. I believe, Sir, that what we have done here this afternoon is not only honourable, but we have done the right thing, in indicating to our young people that there is hope, that there are others who have worked, who have given of their youth, for this country and to this National Assembly.