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Thinking outside the box

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The Constitutional Review Commission has produced its second booklet entitled “Looking at Our Constitution: Choices for Change”. This booklet was launched at a ceremony at the Methodist Church Hall on Wednesday morning, October 6. I am writing this column two hours after and have been so fascinated by its last chapter, “Thinking Outside of the Box” that I have made it the subject of my column in order to let the debate begin. {{more}}I have to admit that I have not been able to read the rest of the book but focused only on that last chapter, having been attracted by the caption it carried. It represents to me what the Constitutional reform process should be all about, daring to move outside of the box rather than focusing on tinkering around with the Old Westminster model that we copied or at least was given to us, minus the values and assumptions that were so critical to its operation in the land of its birth. We will never be able to make it work in the interest of our country. We have to find our solutions outside of the box. To this end the Commission invites us to try to uproot ourselves from the structures, values and thinking that have shaped our constitution and guided governance.

The report points to the 3 critical objectives that have identified the thinking of the Reform Commission: “To deepen and strengthen democratic values and practices; to minimize if not eliminate ‘political tribalism’ from the body politic; to provide a meaningful framework for the involvement of civil society in governance.” As we begin to look outside of the box we have to be cognisant of the context within which governance and the society generally function. There is the matter of size which brings with it the personalisation of our politics and secondly the fact that government is our largest employer. These must guide our thinking and influence our recommendations. I agree in this regard with the Commission’s view that we have to create new institutions and reshape existing ones. We have to look carefully at the issue of political parties and the way they function if we are to accept some of the suggestions of the Commission. Moreover if we intend to eradicate or even minimize ‘political tribalism’ we have to focus seriously on their role within the system.

At the heart of all of this is the question of what constitutes democracy. ‘Thinking outside of the box’ raises two important issues that are central to democracy; ‘ensuring that political authority rests upon and reflects the will of the people as expressed in periodic, free and fair elections at national, local and institutional levels’ and ‘ensuring that governance exists in a culture of accountability, transparency and efficiency.’ Really the matter of what constitutes democracy is a fundamental issue that needs to be discussed. In his address at the launching of the booklet, Prime Minister Gonsalves suggests that once a party is elected it follows that the electorate have accepted everything in its manifesto. Now this does not make a lot of sense to me. Do we read a manifesto and say we agree with all of the 120 measures a party wants to implement? What happens if we agree with sixty, or even with 59? How many of us read the manifest, anyhow? It just does not work like that. You can have a lot of confidence in a party and in its ability to lead the country but not agree with every thing in its manifesto.

I have emphasized this point because of the context in which it was made, but even more, to put forward my view that democracy means more than elections, more than the polling booth. Which American candidate or President said that any election is better than no election? Perhaps the Commission’s emphasis on accountability, transparency and efficiency are the significant factors here. Our democracy does not end at the polling booth. We have to demand to be consulted on any measures that will affect us, also to ensure transparency and accountability. In other words we have to be continually involved in the affairs of the nation. We have to ensure that we maintain that control. So let us take this matter further and find some way of emphasizing the fact that governance and democracy should involve us, the people, at all times.

The Commission is strong on its view that Civil Society should be the corner stone of a new democracy and that it has to be more than a medium for periodic consultation. Instead, it has to be involved in governance in a meaningful way. I agree strongly with this view, but let us not be too sentimental about this. Civil society organisations themselves need reorganisation. Maybe if given this new role changes will be forced on those bodies. Quite often or rather more often than not these organisations are run by a handful of individuals. A minority of members participate in the electoral process for those organisations. We live in a real world. Members of Civil Society organisations are heavily involved with political parties. In some instances these bodies are dens of political tribalism. What happens if any of these persons who are heavily involved politically are elected to represent their respective constituencies? Do they automatically abandon their love or involvement with party? This is obviously where size and limited human resources become a major factor, because we are recycling some of the same persons.

The idea of having Civil Society representatives become senators and eligible to be members of Cabinet would only work if the total structure of government and political parties are revamped. When they become members of Cabinet to whom do they owe loyalty? To the nation? To the government of which they then become a part? Or to the constituencies that elected them? The idea of political neutrality that we expect from these civil society representatives might be merely a pipe dream unless there is a radical reshuffling of how things are done and of organs like the political parties. It is my view that without a strong and vibrant private sector a lot of things will not fall in place. We have to come up with a scenario about how under the suggestions made government would function and the power and responsibilities we will give to the Prime Minister and Majority and Minority parties. I must also compliment the Commission for wanting to move away from the adversarial nature of our present system as is evident by the use of the term Opposition and Opposition Leader.

Thinking outside the Box has provided the framework that we need to build on. We have to let ideas contend. We have to clarify the role of political parties vis -à– vis Civil Society. We have to think of the place of a Prime Minister within this proposed system. The Commission has started the ball rolling. We have to let our voices be heard. This calls for our creative imagination to allow us to move beyond the structures that have shaped our thinking about governance and democracy. It is never easy to do this because society does not simply go to sleep and provide the opening for us to carry out a virtual revolution.

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