The protest actions of the Highway Re-route Movement (HRM) have been making the news for many weeks now. Led, or advised, by the redoubtable Wayne Kublalsingh, who seems to fully enjoy the spotlight, the group has attracted not only widespread media coverage but the support of at least one member of the People's Partnership Government, the MSJ.
In spite of all the coverage however, it has been difficult for the interested observer to make an informed judgement as to the validity or otherwise of the demands which are being made by the group. At various times we have heard that the proposed highway route will break up communities and at other times that it will cause increased flooding in those communities. The technical people in the Government have been adamant that the proposed route is the best and that they have taken all the possible problems into account.
I am in no position and do not propose to comment of the actual issues involved in the confrontation between the group and the Government. But, whatever the pros and cons of the arguments involved, the confrontation itself gives us an excellent insight into some of the more fundamental and intractable aspects of our politics and our political system which are well worth exploring.
The first of these has to do with the issue of consultation. A few weeks ago the Government held what they called a consultation in Debe. We all saw that the consultation ended in a fiasco as members of the group shouted down the speakers and effectively disrupted the proceedings.
The first point to be made is that it was not a consultation at all. That meeting was essentially an exercise in damage control by the Government. True consultation is not about meeting the people after a project has started and the people have shown their anger.
True consultation is about meeting with the people to get their views before the planning of the project is finalised so that such views could be incorporated in the planning stages of the project or, at the very least, the potential objections of the people could be known and dealt with early on.
It is true that this highway project (not something which I supported) was viewed by the Government as one of its major vehicles for State spending to jumpstart the economy. There was therefore, in their view, some urgency about getting it started.
But in a properly governed system that urgency does not and cannot obviate the need to engage in genuine consultation with the people, particularly those directly affected. That is a key ingredient of governance in a democratic system and the fact that not only this administration but all our previous administrations have so routinely ignored this fundamental requirement of governance is not only one of the critical failures of our political system but a powerful indicator as to the root cause of our problems.
The second issue has to do with the politics of protest. We are by now accustomed and almost inured to the constant explosion of protests on the part of citizens which regularly take place all over the country for all manner of complaints. But protest action is generally the most ineffective form of political action. It can certainly bring media attention to an issue, but beyond that, anger tends to replace argument, irrationality tends to supersede rational discourse and incoherence blocks organisation.
Without cogent argument, rational discourse and organisation, such actions usually cannot generate momentum and scale. In other words such actions cannot attract the interest and involvement of many other citizens because they can see no basis on which it applies to them. And without such interest and involvement of large numbers such protest action cannot be sustained and can be, and is, routinely ignored by the powers that be.
The reason why, in spite of its ineffectiveness, protest action is the order of the day for every group with a grouse, is that they have nothing else available to them. It is the hallmark of the powerlessness of the people in our political system.
This issue of powerlessness and impotence also contributes to one of the central features of our political system, which is the phenomenon of maximum leadership. The constant demands of the HRM that Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar meet with them is a case in point.
We must recognise that the phenomenon of Maximum Leadership is not to be understood or explained solely, or even mainly, in terms of the ambitions or psychological inclinations of our leaders. Rather any proper explanation of the phenomenon needs to be located principally in that powerlessness of the people and the habits of thought and action which have been ingrained over years of our history.
The structures of colonial crown colony government invested all power in the central administration which was charged with servicing and controlling the people. When the people had an issue with the central administration of the colony the only agency to which they could appeal was the colonial governor and the only way to attract the attention of the governor was to scream and shout.
We need to remark on the irony that the only appeal of the people was to the colonial governor who was in fact the head of the central administration. But that irony persists. For, as I have argued so often, the advent of political independence did not significantly change those structures of colonial government.
So today, when our people feel aggrieved, they scream and they shout, or in other words they take protest action, and where that does not suffice they demand the intervention of the colonial governor who today is called the Prime Minister. Once the Prime Minister intervenes then he or she is set apart from the government they lead and is no longer primus inter pares, but becomes the maximum leader.
All the problems associated with government and politics in our country can be traced back to this issue of the powerlessness of the people. And constitutional reform is nothing but a meaningless charade unless its principal task is seen to be the redress of that imbalance of power between the central executive and the people.
If all that the highway protest does is allow more of us to understand that fact them it would have accomplished much indeed.
—Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator
on politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean.