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Fundamental political change necessary

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Our political landscape and economic and social architecture is really not much different from those of our neighbours. Going from island to island and country to country, one can see variations and observe different degrees, with one country appearing to be doing better in some areas and worse in others, but fundamentally the picture is much the same throughout the region.{{more}}

For sure, whatever our views on the state of governance in our own country, SVG is not at the bottom of the ladder of social and economic progress in the Caribbean. That is no excuse for complacency, nor by itself a reason why the status quo must be preserved and the current government kept in place at all costs. One must be able to make critical judgement on its stewardship and be open towards examining possible alternatives and options. Governance, good governance to be exact, is a critical factor, as we shall see.

If we are ever to achieve sustainable economic growth with equity, it is important that we first recognize that the basic cause of our continuing state of underdevelopment lies in our colonial past and the legacy of a global economic system geared towards perpetuating that state of underdevelopment. If one were to read the speeches of the leaders of most other states like ours, at the United Nations General Assembly each year, that much is evident.

It is the failure to grapple with that legacy, or weaknesses in making excuses and not tackling the challenges, that lies at the root of our countries being unable to lift themselves out of the state of poverty and the hopelessness it breeds. That is where the governance issue is most relevant, for without democratic and participatory governance systems even the best-laid plans and programmes are bound to fail.

Whatever the benefits of the Westminster parliamentary system, bequeathed to and upheld by us, it is plain that it is inadequate to meet the political needs and aspirations of our people. It is a “winner take all” system, where, as the saying goes, “no prisoners are taken”. The winner of the general elections is expected to rule the roost, to hog the show, and to take all the spoils.

In Britain, from where this system originated, there are more than 600 elected representatives in the House of Commons and an “Upper House”, the House of Lords, as a sort of check of legislation coming from the Commons. The vast majority of Parliamentarians are therefore not Ministers, or as in the case of the Opposition, not in the “Shadow Cabinet”. There are therefore backbenchers and persons within the respective Parliamentary bodies, who from time to time differ with their leaders, sometimes openly so, and even vote contrary to the positions of their leaders.

Such a display of political independence would be considered as tantamount to treachery in our Caribbean, as we have seen time and again. The political leadership maintains a stranglehold over the party and when in government, it is not the party which takes the lead, but the Cabinet, with awesome powers for the Prime Minister. Airing differences can be politically, and even economically fatal.

This system runs right through the society. We enjoy it if on the winning side and decry it when in Opposition, until as such time as the Opposition becomes the Government. If we don’t address this, address the need for vibrant democracy at party level, if we don’t provide room and space for differing and dissenting voices, if we continue to preach and practise hostility against those who disagree with us politically, how could we as a people ever achieve the level of unity and cohesion necessary if we are to tackle the enormous challenges confronting us?

One small step needs to be taken in the form of the overhaul of our system of governance. Yet, while lip-service is paid to this, our Caribbean reality is that we have been proven cowardly to “walk the walk”. For years Barbados, St Lucia, Grenada, St Kitts/Nevis, Jamaica, have all been talking constitutional reform, but unable to implement it. Our attempt here died on the altar of political opportunism and the obsession with “Ralph, Ralph…” The government of Trinidad and Tobago has put forward a couple of pragmatic measures, only to become embroiled in political controversy.

So, moan as we like, and pipe dream that a mere change of personnel in political office will be the solution, if we do not get down to the roots, we are going nowhere. New perspectives, vision, alternative outlook, tolerance and intelligent dialogue and debate, not mud-slinging, are vital to success.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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