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Continuing the political conversation


Whenever critical issues are raised about governance, the state of our politics and our political culture, the critics have a common answer which they seem not to have thought through.{{more}}

I am therefore going to continue that conversation, but to broaden it, for while the country’s attention is focused on the impending general elections, we have to look at life beyond the election. Their answer is simply that the country had an opportunity through the referendum to deal with those issues, but blew it. One of the problems with the referendum was that no careful analysis seemed to have been done since. This is something that is still needed, for clearly at some stage we will have to undertake this exercise again.

When we look carefully at the process leading to the referendum it has to be pointed out that there was general agreement on a number of key issues. There were other areas that were contentious. One of the shortcomings of the proponents of the ‘yes vote’ was the failure to adequately address some of the areas of concern. What should have been done was to pull out the contentious areas and try to come to some compromise on them since obviously there would never have been agreement on everything. Failure to do this meant that once those areas of dispute did not become part of a serious conversation between representatives of the two sides, then what happened was bound to take place.

I have heard it said by Ricky Singh, the Guyanese-Barbadian journalist, that SVG voted to retain the monarchy. This was a very simplistic way of looking at the matter. There appeared to have been general agreement on replacing the monarchy and on having a President rather than a Governor-General. The disagreement on this particular matter was over the manner of selecting the president. The ‘Yes’ people wanted him/her to be elected by parliament while those supporting the ‘No Vote’ wanted a president elected by the general voting population. So, the issue was never one of support or non-support for the monarchy. Obviously, there would have been people in the society who so loved the monarchy that they would not have easily comprehended its replacement.

Many of the major problems with the present constitution and the state of our politics were never really going to be addressed. One about which there was broad agreement was the enormous powers of the Prime Minister. In fact when our PM was first elected to office his declaration that prime ministers had too much power won him the hearts of many persons both here and in the region. On carefully examining the proposed constitution one thing that stood out was that Parliament was given a lot of power. To say that Parliament was given a lot of power was in fact saying that the prime minister would have had a lot of power. This obviously is built into the Westminster system, as it is played out in small countries like ours, where even the thought of a backbench hardly ever arises.

So, what was there to limit the powers of the prime minister? In fact, we can extend this and talk about the shortcomings of our democracy. A democracy needs an active and vibrant press, powerful interest groups and an alert public. The press is important, but my point is about the general state and impact of the media. Even when the work of a minority stands out this does not translate into an active and vigorous press. Inadequacies with the press/media will impact on the state of public opinion. The liberalization of the media here is still a recent phenomenon. The growth of radio stations and recently the social media has provided opportunities for many voices to be heard. This hopefully will work itself out at some point, but at the moment in the political arena it becomes a question of advocates for different political interests extending the struggle into a different path. There might even be serious discussions in each camp, but across camps it is a verbal war at play. There is no path for the individual who wants to look beyond the camps because immediately the content of whatever he/she says is dissected and words or thoughts are pulled out to place him/her in a particular camp. One can even accept this during the silly season, but it has become a permanent state. Why this is so is a different question. The major issue here is for the country to move on, but to do so the conversation has to move beyond this, with the expectation that at stake will be the interests of the country; with the assumption, of course, that there will be freedom of speech and thought and a recognition that disagreements on the path forward will always exist.

Another serious shortcoming is the weakness of the private sector. This can be seen in two areas. The private sector to a large extent depends on government’s patronage for licenses, for advertisements, and for getting access to government’s internal markets. Then there is the matter of economic weakness. The lack of a strong private sector means that the government will continue to be the largest employer. This obviously has its own implications. One hopes for a private sector that is provided with the incentives/infrastructure and economic space to play a vital role in providing employment and building the country’s economy. This, in essence, amounts to a partnership between public and private sector. And let us be clear about this! By private sector I am not talking about the constituency of the Chamber of Commerce. I am referring to all private economic groupings that provide goods and services and hopefully ones which only need the Government to create the economic climate and opportunities for them to make their contribution.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.