The Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader must be commended for signals of commitment to reform of our system of governance. Mrs Persad-Bissessar promised Proportional Representation (PR) for the determination of aldermen in local government and Dr Rowley spoke strongly at Independence of strengthening our Parliament for greater representation, negotiations on national budgets and policies, monitoring public finances and empowering committees with investigative capacity into any misbehaviour in public life. It is a breath of fresh air from our two leaders. The PM could be acting from political expediency, but we sometimes get to the right destination through the wrong road. She could have chosen a better way of introducing the issue, but could be forgiven for trying to steal the thunder she would have known was coming in Dr Rowley’s Independence address, of which he did a pre-recording to an invited audience.
PR in just one area of local government is a baby step towards this system at all levels of representation including and especially the Parliament; and Dr Rowley’s declared commitment to a Parliament as ‘a fierce watchdog’ on the Government must now be transformed into a firm position of the PNM on national administration. But these constitute movement forward and if they succeed, history will record that Kamla and Keith initiated modernisation of governance in Trinidad and Tobago. For make no mistake. Their positions open the door towards a new era and one hopes that backwardness will not shut it again to continue suffocating the nation in the present cobwebbed colonial architecture which is mainly responsible for the lack of supervision and the consequent squandermania, mismanagement and cancerous corruption that we have experienced in this country for 51 years.
Proportional Representation in Parliament is ideal for our diverse society, politically bifurcated along racial lines. After the competition for power once every five years, it will provide the room for collaboration and consensus among parties, reducing the role of race and partisanship in the distribution of state resources, ensuring that all the people are brought into the development process and that their needs, views and concerns are taken into account in the determination of direction and priorities.
But we must also change the way we elect the leader of the country and determine the cabinet. Proportional Representation must be supported by the move to an executive president, elected by one man one vote, first past the post, thus hybridising our system. The president will then choose his cabinet from among the best and brightest, free to move across party lines in his selections but constitutionally triggering a bye-election should any MP join the cabinet. In this way we maintain the separation of powers between the executive and the Parliament, fundamental for negotiation, monitoring of excesses and meaningful representation.
This separation does not now exist. The Prime Minister and the cabinet dominate the Parliament, getting their way most of the time. But the Prime Minister dominates the cabinet. We therefore have one man rule in Trinidad and Tobago, a phenomenon responsible for much of the economic and social disasters since independence. Under our constitution, after all the hype and hoopla of campaigning, after hundreds of thousands have voted, one individual walks way with all the power, an elected king or queen to ‘make mass’ with our lives.
Also, Proportional Representation ought to mean a much larger Parliament allowing for the strengthening of committees which will only work if our representatives are full time MPs working day and night on behalf of the people. Right now they spend just a few hours once a week, allowing the government to run wild with our affairs. With a larger parliament of full time representatives, we should have a unicameral legislature, abolishing the Senate which presently entrenches the strength of the cabinet and has been justifiably criticised as an opportunity for cronyism in the selection process.
Reform also requires comprehensive modernisation of our local government system. This must become the major executing arm of the Government’s policies and programmes. We must ensure it is the system for effective deployment of resources in the communities for the benefit of the people; that it improves security through community policing; and that it becomes an instrument of strengthening the democracy by giving the people a voice in determining the development priorities for their communities.
Clearly then, the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader have only just started the process which is indispensable for saving our country. No one should underestimate the extent of our challenges, seen in the levels of violent crime; persuasive talk of prevalent corruption; collapsing institutions; disillusionment and despair with leadership; waywardness and superficiality of youth; and much more. Then there is the economy, with declining revenues and growing expenditure, increasing debt, manufacturing and investments down, tepid growth at best, growing youth unemployment; no diversification; and now permanently challenged by huge abundance of shale oil and gas all over the planet. We are sure to have a bigger budget deficit this year, given local government elections, taking us further along the road to the IMF and the eventual imposition of harsh structural adjustment.
We therefore urgently need collaboration towards the governance to which Mrs. Persad-Bissessar and Dr Rowley have now pointed. These two leaders cannot stop now. They must take the nation to the logical conclusion. They must talk to each other, then establish a bi-partisan committee of Government and Opposition to continue the conversation and widen it to include all of civil society. The destination to which they point cannot be attained by any one party. This demands co-operation, collaboration and consensus. So much depends on Kamla and Keith for us to get there. They should lead us now. History awaits them.
* Ralph Maraj is a former