Friday, December 15, 2017

Towards an effective citizen response to government

The Movement for Democracy and Development (MDD) has come up with a programme that has the general goal of implementing a system of governance in Tobago and the more specific goal of introducing a system of institutions and initiatives to ensure that the THA acts in accordance with the will of the people of Tobago.

The programme has five components, namely, i) a system for citizens' response to THA performance; ii) institutionalisation of routine participation and information sharing by citizens through THA hearings; iii) public education for inclusive governance and responsible participation; iv) creation of a private-public partnership for the elimination of discrimination based on political affiliation and the establishment of an office for the protection of political rights; and v) a system for monitoring the democracy. In this week's column, I address the first component.

I start by asking the question, How can the citizens of Tobago respond effectively to the performance of the new Executive Council as a matter of course? I make the assumption, of course, that they have never responded effectively to the performance of any Executive Council in the past. Their response has typically been to allow the opposition in the THA to do the responding, and to voice approval or disapproval in the media (newspaper, radio, facebook and other social media) and social liming-spots up and down the island.

That has clearly not been enough. First of all, it has been amorphous; the ideas proferred were not coordinated or grounded in clear social support. Secondly, they were not in a form that could force engagement from the Executive Council; the critical ones were routinely regarded by the council as negligible mouthings of discontent. And thirdly, they were simply not official; the people had voted the council into office and given up their voice to them, so they no longer had a voice of their own.

So the question now becomes, How do the citizens keep their voice after the vote and use it effectively to get the Executive Council to pay attention and act in accordance with their wishes?

The MDD has some suggestions. The first is to establish a Centre for Development and Democracy as a non-profit organisation with the main responsibility of executing all the components of the democratisation programme.

The centre would have a project management unit that would report to a steering committee comprised of key stakeholders such as the private sector, labour unions, community-based organisations, non-government organisations, the business community, and the THA.

A second suggestion is to call a Tobago-wide Conference of Citizens to define the way forward for all Tobago. Such a conference would hear representations from as wide a variety of persons and groups as possible on how democracy might be improved in Tobago, and it would also hear the report from the Allan Richards committee that was appointed to examine the different proposed legislative offerings for conformity with the wishes of the people of Tobago.

A third suggestion is to establish a Partnership for Political Transformation (PPT) comprised of the leaders of all the political parties and representatives of the business community, the church, and other interest groups.

The partnership would involve the creation of a secretariat to organise meetings, prepare documents for meetings, and execute decisions of the PPT. It would prepare the terms of reference for the PPT and create a research unit that would conduct research to support the work of the PPT. It would be chaired by the Chief Secretary.

A Centre for Democracy and Development, a Tobago-wide Conference of Citizens, and a Partnership for Political Participation these in combination might work.

At the very least, they would focus citizens' attention on the importance of structuring their own efforts to get the kind of democracy that the THA as currently structured cannot provide. But they would do more. They would set citizens on the way to formal political participation, say, in a Senate or People's House.

If citizens could get to the point where they saw they could exercise real political constraint on what the executive intended to do, that would be a major step forward in the achievement of the goal of democratising Tobago.

After that, all they would have to do is to keep the system going, including monitoring it for improvement.

But getting to that point is the biggest hurdle. Somebody or some group has to push the process, of course, but can the citizens move themselves to participate in a Conference of Citizens or some such consultation? Will they take the opportunity to participate in the hard processes that will build the democracy they desperately need?

Or will they succumb to the reflex of leaving the Executive Council to govern by themselves after the vote?

We'll see how the matter develops.