A solitary ray of light
The local government election campaign has been described by veteran politician Trevor Sudama as being “consumed by character attacks and a focus on negatives”. Mr Sudama went on to bemoan the fact that during the campaign we “heard precious little about any proposal to transform local government to promote greater democracy, citizen participation, independence from central control, expansion of powers and responsibilities and mechanisms of accountability”.
I do not for a moment disagree with Mr Sudama as to the general tenor of the campaign. But it is not, strictly speaking, true to say that there was no proposal for the transformation of local government. The fact is, while not much was made of it on their platform, the PNM did produce a manifesto which included precisely what Mr Sudama is asking for—a “proposal to transform local government to promote greater democracy....”
That manifesto represents the solitary ray of light in that otherwise dark and dismal campaign and may come to mean far more for the future of the country than anything else that happened in the election, including who won and who lost.
The manifesto was in two parts. The first part contained the party’s proposals for the reform of local government and the second part contained 14 sections which sought to present a tailored development plan for each municipality.
The proposals for the reform of local government are truly noteworthy if only because they represent a stupendously radical reversal of the party’s position on the issue of local government reform.
We need only to recall the bill brought to Parliament by the former PNM government under Mr Manning entitled Local Government Bill, 2009. The provisions of that bill which purported to be aimed at the reform of local government in fact sought to bring local government to an end.
The late Prof John Spence, writing on the bill, declared, “My conclusion is that the present Government wants to abolish Local Government but feels it politically unwise to do so and is therefore achieving the same objective by cleverly emasculating the Local Government bodies.”
And Mr Manning himself. speaking in Parliament in 2006, said his government was of the view that the devolution of authority which involves the decentralisation of policy decision-making could lead to the fragmentation of the unitary state. And so the government had opted for decentralisation rather than devolution.
In direct opposition to that position, the party’s 2013 manifesto declares that “The PNM views an effective system of local government as an essential component in people-centred development, especially at the community level” and that, “we in the PNM believe that local government should be given more, rather than less, responsibility and authority.”
The manifesto goes on to discuss several critical reforms which it views as necessary to increasing such responsibility and authority. First among these is the issue of secure funding where the party “pledges to amend the relevant revenue and taxation laws to allow all Local Government bodies to retain the taxes collected within their boundaries.”
Second, “in order to give our local authorities the best possible chance to be effective, the PNM will amend the Municipal Corporations Act (the Act) to give Local Government Corporations a level of autonomy and executive authority similar to what is now enjoyed by the Tobago House of Assembly.”
The manifesto also deals with the expansion of the responsibilities of the local government authorities when it says, “In addition to the present functions of Local Government bodies… the PNM believes that there are several tasks and functions now managed by the Central Government that can be more effectively handled by Local Government bodies.”
Space does not allow for a full-blown review of the PNM’s new proposals. Suffice it to say that, in their basic principles the new proposals echo many of the arguments I have been making for the strengthening of local government.
There are however a few issues of concern. The first issue may be minor but it needs to be clarified. The PNM document states that, “in addition to the present Municipal Council, which is comprised of all councillors and aldermen, the PNM shall amend the Act to give each corporation an executive council, which shall be empowered to formulate and implement policy for their municipal regions.”
This is a very disturbing statement. One would have thought that the proper locus for the formulating and implementation of policy was in fact the elected officials and not some “Executive Council” appointed by the central government. I may be mistaken but these executive councils sound too much like Mr Manning’s “coordinating committees” reporting directly to the Local Government Minister. This concept needs to be better explained.
My second concern is more fundamental. The document views the whole issue of local government reform as necessitated by the problems of “inefficiency and poor delivery” of services. It thus fails entirely to consider the role of strong local government as a pivotal instrument of better governance and of the growth and development of our parties, our politics and our people.
Finally, while the party’s new proposals are generally to be applauded it is clear from the language of the manifesto that the PNM still has not escaped the authoritarian mindset it has developed over these past 50 years. For the manifesto ignores entirely the vital issue of process.
The whole document is about the PNM “shall” do this and the PNM “shall” do that, without the slightest acknowledgement that it may be a good idea to take these radical proposals to the population in an open consultation. It is clear that the party is still stuck in the mode best represented by Colm Imbert’s famous words, “We win the election we can do whatever we want”.
That attitude is, in its essence, why Mr Manning failed so miserably and why the present administration is in such dire trouble. The PNM will not emancipate itself until it comes to understand that winning elections only delivers the instruments of office, but for policy implementation mandates must be continuously renewed.
Nonetheless the party has taken an impressive step with its local government manifesto. We wait to see if there are other signals of radical change.
• Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean