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Democratising Tobago

By Winford James

Tobagonian Child, so you have reached the highest council of Tobago. I see you there making decisions for the governance of Tobago on issues laid out in the constitution — finance, enterprise development, infrastructure, public utilities, tourism, transportation, education, sport, community development, health, agriculture, settlements, marine affairs, energy matters, and labour, among others. Tracy, Jomo, Joel, Denise, Sheldon, Ancil. Congratulations! You have grown up now, of course, but I remember you from your studenthood at Scarborough Secondary School and Signal Hill Senior Comprehensive School (now Signal Hill Secondary School) where I taught you English, Spanish, general paper, and, well, Tobagonian matters and moral and other critical decision making, though the latter two subjects were not part of the formal curriculum.

I didn't quite foresee that so many of you would all at once be sitting in the council, but I knew some of you would get there eventually. For isn't it the destiny of younger generations to succeed older ones in every sphere of life? So it is a great pleasure to see you and your colleagues — other Tobagonian Children I was not lucky enough to teach, plus Orville, Hilton, and Claudia, all three just ahead of my generation — taken up with our matters of state, and I wish you every success in your roles as secretaries and assistant secretaries. The January 21 Tobagonian revolution (12-0) commands this wish!

But I have a problem, Tobagonian Child (yes, you will always be my child): I do not know that you know how to govern in the new dispensation. Yes, you are part of a PNM NGO and a PNM government that has a long history of politics and government, and so a well of methods, approaches, and principles you can draw from. But, at the personal level, I hardly know you politically — what you think Tobago's development priorities are, what your political dreams for Tobago are, how you see your roles as district representative and (assistant) secretary, and how you value these roles in relative terms.

But because I believe that governance, from day one, should not be left only to the few in the Executive Council, and because you have shown me innumerable times that you are a lifelong learner, I will continue my role as teacher and offer a brief lesson.

The most important lesson that you need to understand — one that subsumes all the other political and governance lessons — is that Tobago's most serious problem is insufficient practical and routine democracy in the governance process. Pay special attention to the descriptors 'practical' and 'routine'. Just as in the case of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet in the country overall, the constitution reposes all power in Tobago in the Chief Secretary and, at his discretion, the rest of the Executive Council — you and your colleagues — who can rule apart from the citizenry. This has shown itself to be a terrible mistake. The citizenry cannot constrain the council except through hit-and-miss political agitation and, ultimately, general elections. The council can do as it pleases and, ineluctably, it ignores opposing voices that it comes to regard as having no legitimacy or locus standi.

The general result is negative discrimination, festering bitterness, and crawling progress towards the kind of governance that can provide the citizenry with adequate opportunities for self- and state-determined personal development, networking, and wealth creation.

Now, the way to solve this problem, Cherished Child, goes beyond your being conscious and conscientious in your roles as secretary and district representative. With the best will in the world, you will find yourself torn between loyalty to your amorphous constituents and loyalty to your more defined party, council, or Chief Secretary, who appointed you to a position of privilege and financial comfort after the vote. And, as surely as night follows day, you will lean more towards loyalty to your chief.

You cannot solve the problem in your personal capacity, as history teaches us. What is needed is help from a citizenry that is concerned enough to be engaged in their own welfare and development. Yes, citizen help! What citizens can be made to do is participate in a Senate or a People's House, separate and apart from the regular House of Assembly, where they can routinely evaluate and constrain executive decisions and actions by presenting alternative policies and methods.

Hear me well, Tobagonian Child. Your discretions are not enough for effective execution of either of your roles. Sorry, but you simply do not have the requisite levels of knowledge, understanding, and experience. There are things you can do, of course, to pick up the slack — like helping to organise your district into committees and task forces to consult regularly with the people and collect data on a whole host of matters for rational policy making, and allowing the people, and not merely yourself or your party, to shape your contributions in the council.

But what I want you most of all to do is develop a healthy respect for the people and their views and aspirations because it is far better to govern in accordance with what the people want than with what you and your party want — unless there is a happy coincidence of desire, which is notoriously hardly ever the case.

Push, in and out of the council, for real democratisation of decision making, Cherished Child, and you will find that whatever ignorance or inexperience you may have now will not matter. Push for the People's House.

Walk good.

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