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Dialogue vs old talk

No one would argue with the Prime Minister’s proposal for a national conversation as mentioned in her New Year’s Day message. Over the years, almost every government has attempted to develop agendas based on mass public engagement in one form or another beginning with the 1962 Queen’s Hall Conference under the administration of Dr Eric Williams.
In the case of the People’s Partnership Government, the plan for a National Conversation comes in the fourth year of its term after a year of four consecutive electoral defeats. It is a safe assumption that this conversation is an attempt to regain the public trust and confidence that have been eroded since its election victory in 2010. A lot will depend, however, on the government’s imagination in designing and executing a national conversation that can deliver meaningful results and on its willingness to listen.
The great risk is that a State-sponsored national conversation might become another expensive and farcical propaganda exercise in old talk. If the government is serious about taking its cues from the public’s agenda, then it must listen to the people who, it should be warned, have already grown quite cynical about consultations.
The very Constitution Reform Commission, whose report is expected to trigger a national debate this year, was itself victim of public disenchantment with consultations. With just a handful of persons showing up at several of its meetings, it will be interesting to see how public comments have been incorporated into its report.
While our Governments talk a lot about consultation and dialogue, they have not demonstrated much aptitude for the consultative process. A good example was the Manning administration’s Vision 2020 exercise which remained largely stillborn despite an expansive and expensive public engagement process.

The Partnership Government has not done much better either. Many of its worst mistakes, like the Reshmi and Section 34 affairs, were the result of decisions made in secrecy and away from public scrutiny. The cry of non-consultation continues to echo across the land, involving issues as minor as the PM’s 20 per cent Christmas discount gift on oil, flour and rice, to the massive $7 billion Point Fortin Highway.
Even in disclosing her plan to initiate a national conversation, the Prime Minister once again exemplified the insensitivity to the public by announcing Cabinet’s acceptance of the report of the Child Protection Task Force without releasing either the report or even disclosing its key recommendations.
This report is a matter in which the public has a very great stake. Indeed, it was public outrage over the recent heinous acts of abuse against children that prompted the government’s establishment of the Task Force. Any government sensitive to the public interest would recognise the importance of bringing the people into its confidence on the findings and recommendations of the task force.
Recognising, however, that the New Year is a chance for new beginnings, we will hope that past lessons have been learnt and that this time T&T will benefit from more meaningful dialogue between government and the people.
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