Imagine if, one day, we could set aside our obsession with our Maximum Leaders and turn instead to the power next-door, local government, the power within easy reach, carrying on its business, unnoticed and ignored, living in the shadow of central government?
And what if, instead of fixating on the goings-on in the St Ann's cabinet and Hyatt Parliament, we focused on our councillors, elevating them as the points of power closest to the average citizen?
And suppose, by breathing down the necks of councillors and aldermen and women, we managed to blow some smoke right up the power structure till it crackled and burst into flames, lighting a fire right under the command centre at the top, making them dance to our tune. Instead of the other way around.
What a revolution that would be! Fire from below, fuelling power from the ground up.
The impact could be cataclysmic, with the entire political system being thrown upside down and into a massive identity crisis. For it is not only the politicians at the top who would suffer a confusing reversal of status, but all of us whose imagination has been locked into the paradigm of centralised power.
So successfully has the authoritarian culture been transferred from colonialism into independence, (See Lloyd Best in tomorrow's T&T Review)that we have become agents of our own disenfranchisement, complicit in the very disempowerment that we rail against.
In our obsession with Prime Minister and cabinet, and our dismissal of local government and community organisation, we merely validate and legitimise the very system that we so condemn.
How can we complain about over-centralised government and non-participatory politics when we ourselves surrender our power as citizens, and ignore the first level of organised government at the point of the community?
True, Local Government is a limp impotent arm, existing as mere functionary to central government. But this is the natural outgrowth of a political system conceived in the notion of power at the top with no interest in power down below.
To transform the paradigm, we need to design a system for encouraging the flow of power from the ground up. This is the revolution in perspective which we need to bring to the task of designing a blueprint for participatory democracy.
This is why we must not even entertain the notion of a government-sponsored Constitution Reform initiative. In our hearts, we have always known that it is the job of the people, not of governments, to design constitutions for framing the terms on which they will agree to live together in a particular place. But while we know it in our hearts, we do not have the self-confidence to practise it by action. And so, we keep going along with the charade of constitution reform, allowing governments to spend millions of dollars in making-as-if, while we ignore it all, knowing that if our interests were ever to be seriously affected, we could crank up our protest mechanisms and bring it all down to nought.
Nobody does subversion better than us.
But what if, this time around, we chose to do something else?
What if, instead of not participating, we activated ourselves to take charge of the process, knowing that the system that exists is an albatross that keeps us tied to the old maximum power system? What if we decided, finally, to make a break from this back-and-forth politics that has us trapped in an increasingly degraded and degrading system?
If we were to choose this option, where would we start?
Well certainly not with another Constitution committee or commission that is mandated by or reports to political interests seeking to retain control of the State.
We, sovereign citizens of this land, would begin by talking to each other with a view to outlining our vision, setting our goals, describing the elements of our challenge and identifying the factors that block, hinder, deny or compromise our own ability to achieve our desired objectives for our nation.
This is the beginning of the process of the political education required for making ourselves democracy-fit and citizenship-ready.
Our understanding of how and why the system works against us will yield the insights for designing an appropriate framework for governance. In this, constitution reform may present itself as a desirable element, but only to the extent that it would promote mass representation, more effective government across the entire spectrum of national life, and greater accountability to the people.
A people-based initiative for overhauling the political system has the capacity for so radicalising the environment, that local government could well become the dynamic for giving shape and function to central government.
It will draw its power from all those community groups and organisations that work quietly and unobtrusively outside the formal government system,which together, keep this country afloat, even amid deepening crisis at the centre.
There is no shortage of leadership in this country; what we have is a dysfunctional power system—not only in politics—whose survival requires alertness in identifying and destroying anything that would appear to threaten its ability to keep replicating itself.
How far we have strayed from accountable and representative government when the Minister of Local Government could himself become complicit in further emasculating local government!
For how ironic it is that this Minister should be the one chosen to champion the Constituency Development Fund, an initiative offered by the government in open admission of the failure of both local and central government to deliver service to the people.
About his response to this columnist's insistence that not one cent be spent from the CDF without the relevant legislation in place, there is not much to say except that:
1) A budget debate in which the CDF is a line item does not qualify as a parliamentary debate of legislation for the CDF;
2) In securing its democratic rights and freedoms, the public is better served by law, policy and practice rather than self-interested political rhetoric;
3) The evidence of the government's intention to align the CDF to its development plan lies in its own public statements about the fund;
4) Proceeding with the$410 million fund out of fear of public "dissonance" caused by disappointing constituents' is a clear case of hoping two wrongs will somehow add up to one right.
Ultimately, however, the CDF is just another plaster for the problems of a broken political system which is in urgent need of our attention. Let's focus on that.
• Sunity Maharaj is the editor of the
T&T Review and director of the
Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies