Ensure there is never an Anil Roberts again

Another newspaper columnist, Clarence Rambarat (whom Singing Sandra in a Facebook thread once invited along with me to meet her somewhere private) has gone political. Last month he mounted a PNM platform and talked about running for election. I doubt I will find myself disgusted enough with Anil Roberts and his leaders’ insults to voters’ intelligence to follow suit; but I empathise.

Weeks ago I imagined politics that’s not about voting. I still hold fast to that vision—the 20-minute act of staining your finger isn’t a sufficient exercise of citizenship to make any meaningful difference. You simply choose among options you’ve done little or nothing to determine. Political accountability takes much more work than that.

But if (at least for the Muslimeen moment) it’s political parties that are going to form governments, then maybe the only way to get good government is to work within political parties. To ensure that no matter which one(s) get(s) elected, competence and principle come with it. Essentially, it’s recasting our political parties into political movements. I think the ex-Caroni workers who threatened to start a party understand that. Labour and social movements, after all, were crucibles for most of the Caribbean’s political parties.

Both our dominant tribal parties share these roots, though they’ve clearly become something else. Perhaps that’s because after the Oil Boom—except for a brief moment that saw the coalition of the NAR and the PNM (the only party elected to government since Independence) run out of office—we’ve not invested in anything visionary or ideological in our politics. US pressure and the suicide of the Grenada Revolution on the one hand, and money in the Treasury to buy patronage on the other, have forced us into a meaningless, neoliberal, Left-averse politics that has lacked any big ideas or creativity other than get in power, and take care of those who got you in power. We haven’t had to work on imaginative solutions to scarcity or to figure out a Third way. Or to contend with blatant barriers to the ballot box. Our politics have become imbued with a laziness and shortsightedness all round, both by politicians and the electorate.

The utter lack of accountability of Anil Roberts’ outrageously defiant refusal to resign, followed by a begrudging and sniping acquiescence, is a clarion signal our system of political representation is hopelessly broken in its current form. Instead of cynicism and abandonment of politics, however, we can see this as an urgent call to return to and to refashion politics. We all need to “go political” in one way or another.

Thoughtful constitutional reform might have provided some solutions. Proportional representation; separation of legislative oversight from the executive; stronger, more independent institutions like a National Human Rights Institution (now being implemented in Jamaica) all provide more effective machinery for representation and accountability in a plural nation of minorities struggling to overcome a colonial history and political structures intended to keep only one group in power. It’s the horse I beat over and over, how so many of our institutional structures have never been redesigned from their original purpose—to breed inequality and indignity on a daily basis.

But constitutional reform Section 34 style won’t accomplish that. It’s August again. After spending, Jack Warner says, $45 million on months of popular consultations, appointing a commission that excluded Opposition parties and social movements, and printing thousands of a glossy public report, Government can’t expect to be taken in the least bit seriously when its actual legislative proposals for change are introduced in Parliament for debate within a week, don’t appear on the Constitutional Reform website, there’s no effort to go back to the public with them, and a campaign to discredit Opposition concerns about this haste. The reform process has already lost whatever credibility it might have had and, like the elimination of preliminary inquiries, a few decent policy ideas have been corrupted into a naked partisan exercise, with Government moving to change the voting process singlehandedly in the runup to an election.

Exactly what was done before October’s local government election, though haste in that instance did not reap rewards at the polls. PNM and MSJ fearmongering about runoff elections, held all over the world, is distastefully disingenuous, however. It’s just that prime ministerial term limits and right of recall (which I critiqued in February) are superficial, not terribly effective solutions to our governance problems. Merle Hodge herself laments the Reform Commission’s “failure to propose anything that increases the direct input of ordinary citizens into decision-making”. Further, Government needs to make up its mind—proportional representation was advanced as empowering minority interests and increasing third party representation; now what’s proposed in legislation is runoffs in first-past-the-post elections, which arguably reduces third parties’ power. But maybe that’s the lesson learnt in October.

So some time before September 17, 2015 you will likely find me, not on the hustings, but trying to work within the bowels of some political party, while encouraging my cohorts to do likewise in every other, to shape the policy options and quality of governance—the futures—we end up with as choices to put our X next to.

Forging the liberty to love: one nation…many bodies…boundless faith

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