With oil bleeding through La Brea and blood leaking into our lives, today is as good a day as any to start that national conversation that the prime minister wants.
We could start by exploring why prime ministerial robber talk is not a management option in running this country. Especially for her.
Kamla Persad-Bissessar is a true-blooded successor of the colonial legacy of power without responsibility and management without accountability.
Now, having refused to accept responsibility or hold herself accountable for her many failures of leadership, how can she demand accountability from others?
If, when caught out with Reshmi Ramnarine, pleading misstep was good enough for her, then why isn’t it good enough for everyone else? And if, having been caught out with Section 34, she disclaimed accountability for the decision of the cabinet she heads, then why would anyone else be willing to hold themselves accountable for anything?
The values imbedded in the leadership culture, with its origins in colonial authoritarianism, survives not only in Persad-Bissessar and the politics at large, but throughout the leadership class of Trinidad and Tobago.
It is what explains how, after admitting to $20 million worth of environmental infractions in the La Brea oil spill, the Gillette board and Hassanali management of Petrotrin are free to investigate everyone without themselves being investigated by either the Minister of Finance as Corporation Sole, the Minister of Energy as industry regulator, or the prime minister as the boss of them all. In any responsible and accountable environment, both board and management would have already offered their letters of resignation, or at the very least, have been called to account. Instead of parroting the Petrotrin management line as if he were a company employee, the Minister of Energy would have already established an independent enquiry into the worst oil spill disaster in the country, with a firm date for reporting to the government as a prelude to reporting to parliament. Instead, Petrotrin’s bosses are clearly writing their own script of the disaster as the buck is passed down, down, down.
On the flip-side of this power without responsibility and management without accountability is the culture of powerlessness with its psychology of oppression, alienation and injustice along with the myriad associated symptoms of crime, illiteracy and general social decay. This relationship between authoritarian power and mass powerlessness will not be changed by any reading of the riot act or cracking of the proverbial whip. It can only be changed by altering the dynamic between power and the people in order to make power responsible and accountable and to invest power in people, enlightened, sovereign and free. Borrowing from the Gandhian principle, then, to get the change she wishes to see, the Prime Minister will have to change herself; to get the change we wish to see, we, too, must change ourselves.
In practical terms, this translates into re-engineering the political dynamics between power and people.
When released, the constitution reform proposals of the People’s Partnership will have to be closely examined to evaluate their potential for transforming the power structure and changing the culture. In the absence of a constitutional framework for institutionalising responsible and accountable government, we will do what we have been doing for as long as we have been here: protesting, blocking, subverting and generally making ourselves heard.
Having failed, for so long, to transform the power dynamics, we have increased our risk of social breakdown. The room for negotiating change is becoming smaller and smaller. Lines are hardening while walls of division are being strengthened, providing greater cover for the hidden emergence of new and dangerous elements.
Authoritarian power develops no skill for negotiation, which is the defining aspect of democracy. Instead, it chooses its weapon between bribery and force. From conquest to independence, force was the cheaper and therefore better option. It took the Williams government less than eight years to discover that Independence called for a new strategy. If 1970 taught governments anything about independent T&T, it was that force was not an option for a nationalist government. In any case, successive petro-booms would soon make bribery the new, better and more palatable option for an age of Independence and assumed democracy.
Between the 1980s and now, bribery has taken root as power’s most potent weapon for promoting, sustaining and replicating itself. It is now so entrenched that it has bred a new power elite, generally recognised as the political financier class.
These political financiers are the first to be wooed and bribed with the promise of open access to the treasury if the party gets into office. With financiers on board, next to be bribed is the electorate, with rum, roti, wine, jam and circus galore, creating an election industry in which the media has emerged as a major player.With control of the treasury comes the chance to transform bribery into national policy. This would explain why so much of the money that is being spent in the name of social and economic progress is taking us backwards into greater illiteracy, more crime and deeper social decay.
Because it is being dispensed as bribery, very little of government expenditure is anchored in programmes and strategies designed for meaningful transformation and enduring change. Distributed as bribery, government expenditure plays to our basest instincts while asking nothing more of us than to be happy with money, thereby prioritising money as the centre of our lives and materialism as the purpose of our being.
For a people yearning to re-claim their lost humanity and build a shining new city on the hill, the psychic emptiness is increasingly too much to bear. In the enveloping darkness, forces spun from hopelessness and alienation are being unleashed upon the land, spilling blood and oil on one side but, hopefully, on the other side, being countered by forces of hope and change.