Agents of the old regime
WHEN, two or three years ago, the Chamber of Industry and Commerce first announced its plan to establish political debates as part of our electoral process, my first instinct was to dismiss the idea as yet another example of the predilection of the colonised mind for borrowing the effects and artefacts of the metropole in the fallacious belief that in the symbol inheres the substance.
It was clear that the idea of political debates had been borrowed straight from the American political system and in particular their presidential election process, and that the Chamber meant to transplant the idea to our shores without any debate as to its relevance or appropriateness.
Such a debate might have questioned the utility of such debates in a political system where plan, programme and performance have never been the criteria of choice, where manifestos are published and brandished two weeks before the election date never to see the light of day again and where candidates are not judged on experience and competence but on their degree of loyalty to the party and, more importantly, the political leader.
In such a political system electoral debates would be at best all sound and fury signifying nothing and at worst vehicles for the transmission of coded messages of ethnic division.
The only thing which stayed me from an utterly derisive comment at the time was the fact that, sitting on the Debate Commission set up by the Chamber, were people like Ronald Harford and Fr Clyde Harvey, gentlemen for whom I have the greatest respect. If Harford and Harvey saw merit in the project, who was Harris to say there was none.
And, at the very least, I convinced myself that if the debates could become institutionalised then somewhere down the road they might serve the purpose for which they was apparently intended. So I gave the project the benefit of the doubt.
But that was then. I did not pay any attention to the debates during the THA election and had forgotten all about the Debates Commission until I saw a news clip of the chairperson, Andrew Sabga, making a statement about the debates to be staged for the local government elections. And I have to confess that I was completely befuddled.
I could not for the life of me see what national debates there could be appropriate to local government elections. I understand the idea of the debates during the general elections or the THA elections (which are the equivalent of general elections for Tobago). But how do you have debates for local government where the issues are supposedly all local and the candidates are local.
The Debates Commission is on record as saying that its debates “would bring significant value to the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago by stimulating discussion and information-sharing to guide their assessments and decision-making…”
So, the Commission would have us believe that in these local elections, debates on national television among political leaders who, most of them, do not know what they are saying, do not believe what they are saying, and know what they are saying to be untrue, such debates are going to help the citizens of Inverness, and River Estate, and Whitelands, decide who their councillors should be. I thought the idea was simply absurd.
The only national debate which would make any sense in the circumstances would be a debate which asked the political leaders to state what their plans were for local government itself as an institution of the political system. That is a debate which would generate a lot of interest. But that is not what the Debates Commission is doing.
But, the more I thought about it, the more I came to realise that it was not absurd at all. It became clear that having a national debate among political leaders to address local government election issues was itself a political statement of serious import. The Commission was in effect saying that national political leaders know best what people in the various communities require or, alternatively, that even in local government elections national interests trump local affairs.
What the Debates Commission is doing by having such a debate for local government elections is, in effect, vindicating the position of, and throwing its support behind, those forces which are bent on emasculating every last vestige of power still resident in local authorities and who believe that the centralisation of all power in the central executive is the way to go.
But that is a political position on a political issue that is at the heart of the governance debate. The Debates Commission is perfectly at liberty to hold whatever position it pleases and to arrange its business in furtherance of that position. But it cannot at the same time seek to maintain that it is a non-partisan body playing the honest broker in the political fray.
And, if I had any doubts about this conclusion, those doubts evaporated when I heard the news that the MSJ had been excluded from the debates. According to the spokesperson for the MSJ they were excluded because the Debates Commission created for itself and imposed a rule that, “For inclusion in the debate, each party must have nominated candidates to contest the elections in at least 75 per cent of the municipals.”
Now understand that the Debates Commission develops its own rules. It could have just as easily said that the debates would be open to any registered party declaring its intention to participate in the elections. What would be the difficulty of so doing? It would simply result in a larger, more all-inclusive debate.
But the Commission did not do this. Instead they opted for a rule which would effectively exclude every smaller party and limit the debate to the two traditional powerhouses of the old regime, the PNM and the UNC. (If the ILP is included it would only be because Jack Warner’s money, however obtained, could buy the necessary number of candidates).
So it is clear that far from seeking to stimulate “discussion and information-sharing” among the citizens and “to guide their assessments and decision-making” what the Debates Commission is seeking to do is limit the discussion to those very parties which have kept us locked in bondage for the past 50 years.
The Commission has thus declared where it stands. The rest of us must take note.
—Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and
commentator on politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean