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People's protests and the People's Partnership

By Michael Harris

The explosions of community protest which have rocked the southland over the past three weeks and have now spread to the north, present our political leaders in both government and opposition with a splendid opportunity to seize the time and launch a process of necessary and significant change.

We have seen such demonstrations repeatedly over the years from one end of the country to another. And always it is the same story. Residents, after living for months or years with bad roads, dilapidated schools, no water, no jobs or whatever their particular complaint might be, finally take to the streets in protest, demanding action from the "authorities".

In one of my very first articles written for this column, in March 2008, I had dealt with the real solution to such perennial protests. On that occasion, the residents of Inverness had staged a protest to highlight the deplorable condition of the road which ran through their community. The minister of works at that time was Colm Imbert who held a news briefing to respond to the residents of Inverness.

Part of what he said at that news briefing is still relevant today. Mr Imbert stated then that he "…. could not possibly know everything that was going on with every project throughout the country and that he had not been aware… of the plight of the citizens of Inverness until he had seen the television news the previous night".

As I stated in my article then that statement by Mr Imbert, "gave one of the most powerful justifications for the urgent need for comprehensive local government reform". As I have written in this column before "there can be no question that the primary role and focus of local government systems is the provision of goods and services to their localities. And the reason why local governments continue to exist and grow in countries throughout the world is precisely because vis a vis central governments, local institutions are better placed to know, to understand and to interpret both the conditions and the needs of local communities".

But if this obvious solution was not acted upon in 2008 and all the years before that, what is there in the current situation which would lead us to believe that the process of local government reform has any greater chance of getting off the ground today?

The answer lies in the nature of our current People's Partnership Government. It is a coalition government of five separate parties and at least four of those five parties have, what I would argue, are powerful political motivations to support any initiative towards the development of strong local government.

Let us begin with the Congress of the People (COP), which is currently embarked on public consultations on constitutional reform. It is true that while the COP says that it supports local government reform its focus, in these consultations, has been on far more peripheral and tendentious issues, such as two terms for the Prime Minister, the right of recall and proportional representation.

But the COP must be aware that ahead of it lies a serious difficulty in getting the Government to act on any of these proposals.

What the COP would need is a wedge with which to open the whole issue of constitutional reform; such a wedge is any issue which has the possibility of gaining widespread support throughout the country and, more particularly, in the government. No issue, other than local government reform, possesses such characteristics.

As far as the Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) is concerned they too are on the record as supporting local government reform. Indeed last week the MSJ issued a statement in which it stated that "poor governance" was the reason behind the protests. What the MSJ means by "poor governance" is not clear but that party may well have very high political motivation for championing the cause of local government reform.

It is clear that the MSJ is not comfortable in the Government and would like to take its exit. But, as I argued recently, the MSJ "cannot simply pull out of the Government without a politically valid reason that can stand the test of public scrutiny". That party may well consider that a national issue such as local government reform provides the ideal platform on which to make its stand.

As far as the Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP) is concerned their primary reason for being in the coalition in the first place is to advance the cause of greater governmental autonomy for Tobago. In the circumstances they can hardly cavil at any initiative which seeks to increase the powers of local governments in Trinidad.

It cannot be denied however that it is the UNC which will determine whether such reform gets off the ground or not. And while it is true that the UNC does not really give a fig for any of the issues of constitutional reform and good governance (except and unless any such issue can be manipulated for electoral advantage), there are two factors which could lead that party to champion the cause now.

The first factor is simply that such reform is contained in their manifesto. More than this, the Prime Minister almost a year ago promised that her government "would shortly be moving to tackle the issue of local government reform".

A year later we have heard nothing more about that promise. But given the spate of protests and assuming the urgings of her coalition partners she, and the UNC as a whole, might want to take a closer look at the issue of local government reform. If they do so it would not escape them that this issue also gives them the opportunity to embark on a serious national initiative, different from anything the PNM had proposed.

It is no secret that this Government, over the two years it has been in office, has initiated very few programmes of any significance and those which they have adopted they have borrowed almost wholesale from the previous PNM administration.

Local government reform gives them a real opportunity to initiate real and significant change.

Patrick Manning's vision of local government reform was designed only to kill off the last vestiges of local government. Should the UNC, along with its partners in the People's Partnership Government, really come to champion the cause of strong local government and to implement such reform, they would have made a mark on our political history which none can take away.

—Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on politics and society in Trinidad

and the wider Caribbean.

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