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Civil society participation and constitutional reform

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The big question therefore is, should civil society be represented at the highest national decision-making level, the House of Assembly, (officially that is, since our reality is that Cabinet, and the Prime Minister, determine what the Parliament would eventually approve)?

A major error being made by all too many of our people, in answering this question is to confuse ends and means. Thus, instead of giving serious thought as to whether it would save the national interest to have civil society representation in Parliament, many people ask the how question.{{more}}

In this confused state one is bound to be trapped in a muddle. Rather we should ask, (i) Does the current, virtually tribal political rivalry contribute to national decision-making which is objective, fair and facilitates national development? (ii) Can the infusion of non-partisan voices and views enrich and enhance our decision-making process? (iii) Will our society benefit or lose by such inclusion?

In answering the first of these questions, one only has to point to the several national political crisis situations we have had since independence, and even before it, to understand where often our politicians become hopelessly entrapped behind their artificial political battle lines and proceed pig-headedly to defy “Vox populi” (the voice of the people). Any dissenting views are then not considered worthy of merit since it is “anti-government”. The Bush-ite view of “who is not with us, is against us” becomes the dominant theme and governments caught in this quagmire refuse the lifeline of mediation by civil society, choosing instead confrontation and national confusion. Thus it was in 1978/79 (the road to independence), 1981 (the Dread Bills) and 2000 (the Greedy Bills). There are worrying signs that even the current government, beneficiary of democratic struggles, is sometimes wont to engage in a similar kind of stubborn, partisan heel-digging.

This is where the answer to the question becomes relevant. In each of the crisis situations mentioned above, worthy non-partisan contributions to the Parliamentary debate, provided of course that constitutionally and practically we all respect such contributions, would have provided different perspectives long before the battle lines got drawn. Similarly on matters like the national Budget, characterized by the cacophony of “This is a great Budget” and “ The worst Budget ever”, informed, non-partisan views could not only analyze the proposals emanating from different experiences. The socio-economics will then have a chance to emerge from behind the political clouds.

Continuing in this trend of thought it must be patently obvious that society has nothing to lose and everything to gain by the inclusion of civil society at the highest level. We would not be the first society to do so. In neighboring Caribbean countries – Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, to name three, civil society representatives, notably from the trade union movement, the private sector and churches, have long been appointed as Senators, bringing not just the views of those sectors to the national decision-making process, but also their own general accumulated experience and wisdom.

Meanwhile we in SVG have largely used the position of Senator either to reward some party faithful or to groom some progressive candidate for the next elections. Both parties are equally guilty of this, not even making an effort, even for window-dressing sake, to appoint a civil society representative respected nationally. How many of those senators appointed by both sides since independence have won acclaim for their contributions in Parliament? Have they not been, in the majority of cases, the bass line in the choruses?

It is because of this experience that the Constitutional Review Commission has made the inclusion of Civil Society one of the gang-planks of its proposals. It has also been at pains to point out that this civil society presence in Parliament must be meaningful, in the same way as it opts for participation of our people in governance, not mere consultation. A pity it is that there has been inadequate public comment on these views, rather a sort of negativism about this or that civil society leader, some uninformed diatribe about people wanting to enter Parliament “through the back door” and the debate about process, even before agreeing on the principle (placing the cart before the horse).

We need to lift ourselves above that, to first debate the pros and cons of such civil society, parliamentary presence, and then if agreed on its desirability, surely it is not beyond us to fashion a suitable method. We can and must take up this challenge, our very future depends on it.

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