Friday, February 23, 2018

By what means?

When Dr Keith Rowley addres­sed a People’s National Move­ment audience in Longdenville in late April, he spoke of “leading people on to the streets”, about advising the Prime Minister of his intention, and he called for the country to be on stand-by. If it’s me and two, 20 or 200,000 people, he thundered at the close of his presentation, we will take to the streets. It stands out as among Dr Rowley’s most angry and fiery speeches, even by his high standard.

In the next day or two, his ultimatum was reported on all news media outlets as a promise of “another march” the likes of the November 2, 2013, Section 34 march through Port of Spain. It was an intriguing description since Dr Rowley did not speak of marching. In fact, the following night, perhaps feeling “another march” was not a suitable description of what he was signalling, he said “…and I’m not talking about marching” but did not say what other “leading people on to the streets” strategy he intended to employ.

That the media assumed “another march” confirmed that marching was a clichéd, pull-it-from-your-back-pocket method of protest; that all references to “people on the street” automatically meant a march; and the assumption drew attention to the absence of any other permissible avenue for citizen discontent.

Interrogate for a moment the expression “the fall of the Government”. I too had been using the phrase liberally in conversation about the growing discontent about this and previous governments. Then a bright friend asked, “How exactly does a government collapse in Trinidad and Tobago?” 

“When they lose the mandate to govern,” I parroted. 

“But how do citizens tell a government it has lost its mandate? What determines a loss of mandate? And what happens when a government refuses to acknowledge messages from the population?”

“Well, I suppose they hold on by their fingernails and call a general election only when it is constitutionally due.” This took the conversation back to where it started.

The predominant thinking in T&T that many, including me, have been mimicking is that we have a vote and therefore the power to vote out (less often in) a government. Beyond the vote, however, citizens really have no power to influence the conduct of their government, unless citizens are prepared to march every day, go the media with all their complaints, and/or burn tyres—the last an emergent strategy over the past decade or so.

The reality is, unless the parliamentary opposition can get the unlikely passage of a vote of no-confidence in the Prime Minister, there is little citizens can do to impose their will on any government. Citizens have no choice but to wait until a general election during which to exercise this grand right they possess once every five years.

I was marginally optimistic that the latest Constitution Reform Commission would have, in these new times, recognised the burgeoning desire of the popu­lation for avenues to both influence a government’s manner of governance and to remove a government if the majority so wished. But that, I know, was expecting the cat to put on his own bell and the cats we have are not so inclined or dexterous.

The Prakash Ramadhar-led Constitution Reform Commission gestured at wider citizen participation in various pages of its report. Indeed it states its recommendations are designed to, inter alia, increase citizen participation (p 2) and that at every step of the way it noted public comments promoting “a meaningful expansion and widening of democratic partici­pation by citizens in government” (p 7). That, it seems, was taken to mean a few more opportunities to vote in referenda on specific matters (p 13).

According to the report, citizens should be given the right to recall their Member of Parliament: “The petition for recall should attain the requirement of two-thirds of the voters who voted in the election of that Member of Parliament for it to be effected.” (p 24) Why two-thirds rather than 50 per cent plus one is might have a basis of which I am not aware.

The Prime Minister, meanwhile, can be recalled if two-thirds of the senators vote in favour of a motion of no-confidence.

This, to my mind, does not represent any significant change of citizens’ current circumstances in which they are practically stuck with a government for five years during which such harm can be done to a country as to require a generation to right. 

For now and our immediate future, citizens are left to walk, march, burn tyres, phone in to radio programmes and write letters to the editors of the newspapers. Today’s planned midday march, in that context, is unlikely to yield much. Perhaps tens of thousands will march, chant, express their rage at the wrongdoings of the current Government but the Government is not bound to take on the marchers.

I hope some citizens will come into the capital to demand true means by which they can impose their will on governments in between ballots. That, to my mind, is the only place to begin the change that most citizens acknowledge is desperately needed.