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Making Sense of Manifestos; Sunity considers value of policy documents

Columnist Sunity Maharaj considers the value offered by political manifestos to the electorate; and how the public might better utilise policy documents for better governance:

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. (Copyright AFP 2014/Frederic Dubray)
Photo: Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
(Copyright AFP 2014/Frederic Dubray)

With just two weeks to go to the election, there is not much that can be done with recently released party manifestos, apart from oooh-ing and aaah-ing, or shaking our heads or nodding at this or that measure.

Still, we must not surrender to promises but strive for understanding above acceptance.

It is one thing to have a series of headline-grabbing promises but quite another for the electorate to make any meaningful analysis of their potential effectiveness, singly or together, or to evaluate their implications for the many different and, often, competing interests.

Even to consider the political challenges of their implementation and management would require much more time. Especially when it comes to economic management, it is difficult to arrive at any definitive position given the externally-propelled nature of the national revenue base.

Coming this late in the game, manifestos serve either to validate one’s support of a given party or, for the undecided, paint a broad-brushed impression of its approach to government.

What manifestos do reveal, however, is the party leadership’s assessment of us and what we want of them. And, judging from the manifestos, we, the people, mostly want to be bribed with little or no thought to the consequences for the country.

Photo: Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (left) and Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley.
Photo: Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (left) and Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley.

It says more about us as a people, and less about our political leaders, that when it comes to serious negotiation of our interests, we are inclined to adopt the role of passive participant in the political process. We let the politics happen to us instead of us happening to the politics, pushing it here and shaping it there so that, in the end, what emerges as the parties’ national manifestos are documents based on wide and deep pre-negotiation.

It says a great deal about the level of our political maturity that political parties can fear that the competition will steal their ideas if publicly disclosed “too early.” Underlying this view is the assumption that manifesto measures are largely headline-grabbers designed to prompt emotional responses when, in fact, they should be the beginning of a public process of negotiation.

For a party manifesto to be politically meaningful, the electorate should have enough time and opportunity for evaluating the implications of the combination of proposed measures. In the absence of this, the electorate runs the risk of ending up as hostage to the party that wins the election.

Like the members of the Highway Re-route Movement, we vote for one thing promised in the campaign only to end up being governed by the exact opposite once the party goes into office.

Photo: Dr Wayne Kublalsingh (centre) and the Highway Re-Route Movement.
Photo: Dr Wayne Kublalsingh (centre) and the Highway Re-Route Movement.

Let us never forget the absolute betrayal of those voters who were organised to oppose the routing of the highway through their community only to have it rammed down their throats after voting the organisers into office.

For voters like them, what could possibly be the value of a manifesto of campaign promises except as wasted paper and lying rhetoric?

For most people, manifestos come like manna from high. We’re going to get this, that and the other about which we agree to have no say. We are thankful just to receive.

Nobody has ever played the card quite like Kamla, Edition 2015, the benefactor of all things bright and beautiful, having, apparently, dipped into her own pocket to give us everything from highway to high schools and hospitals to hope.

Having accepted our historical role as lambs to be watered and grazed before slaughter, we simply wait to see what bright shiny toy the politicians will pluck from their bran tub of gifts for lucky or unlucky us.

Photo: PNM supporters celebrate their 2007 General Elections victory. (Copyright Pedro Rey/AFP 2015)
Photo: PNM supporters celebrate their 2007 General Elections victory.
(Copyright Pedro Rey/AFP 2015)

As a serious people, even within the two-week limit left of this campaign we should busy ourselves with taking apart these manifestos to evaluate their impact and workability in order to push the political parties to more viable platforms.

This moment now, before the election, is the time to negotiate, not after, when constitutional arrangements and culture conspire to eliminate us from the power equation.

So alien is this notion of negotiated interests that when presented with the platform of the Clico Policyholders’ Group, the political leader of the People’s Partnership described it as “blackmail”.

One wonders whether she applies the same term to negotiations with political financiers behind closed doors.

It is a sign of our maturing democracy that interests are getting together to present their own manifestos to political parties. This is what we need to begin the process of bringing our democracy alive.

It is a noisy, rackety, clanging thing as interests clash and collide, but it is the only way to enter the political process and claim a space in it. Perhaps, if we push the envelope further this time around, political parties would learn the lesson that they need to give themselves and the electorate much more time to discuss and debate their plans for government before arriving at any declaration of conditional support.

Photo: The Joint Trade Union Movement (JTUM) takes to the streets in protest against State corruption.
Photo: The Joint Trade Union Movement (JTUM) takes to the streets in protest against State corruption.

We need to demand this of all parties but more especially of the parties that we support.

Unfortunately, too many, especially professionals with the expertise needed, are too invested in one party or another to risk rocking the boat of their preferred parties by engaging in open debate. Like so many of us, they are trapped in the historic culture of mindless group solidarity where those who are not with us are instantly declared to be against us.

We have two weeks left, people. Let’s get this show on the road by pressing the parties as hard as we can.

The time to question, evaluate, critique, negotiate, and extract public commitment is now.

About Sunity Maharaj

Sunity Maharaj
Sunity Maharaj is a journalist with 38 years of experience and the managing director of the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies. She is a former Trinidad Express editor in chief and TV6 head of news.

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25 comments

  1. Somebody needs to explain the “highway reroute organisers” part of this column…I am confused (mostly unaware as well) about this,….was Kublalsingh (and his “real” supporters) hoodwinked by people who pretended to support his cause and he voted for them and encouraged others to do the same only to find out they were traitors to the cause?

  2. Only one manifesto matters and that is the one that will actually kept.
    The PNM is know to not fulfil any promise so it is a waste of time even reading their manifesto.

  3. Seriously though , I think the PNM ‘s manifesto should be studied and dissected .. Take their promises and compare them with the shrinking economy Also the Give with one hand and take back with the other.
    Do not be fooled….AGAIN.

  4. erm how many manifestos did Sunity review?

  5. Hannibal Najjar

    Politicians make promises more on forecasts than on current trends. If current trends are favorable, promises on forecasts are sundries. But if current trends aren’t favorable, forecasts become sole the machinery of promises and engine of hope. Also, if current trends aren’t favorable, then smart and hopefully sincere politicians, especially if not the incumbent, will use this to crank up the reasons for them being the best choice in the elections. The best promise maker (substance and style) will give the voting public the hope that they would be the best promise keeper.

  6. Annette, sad thing is the tax has too and will come back if not in this approaching 5 yr term definitely the next.

  7. Quite right Tanya. Consider the Axe the Tax of 2010 – I never quite understood how or why our citizens would think it’s OK to not pay Property Taxes, and those making the most noise, were those in the old upscale residences where I have an acquaintance was paying just $19.00 annually for a home complete with swimming pool! And so, we have gone scot free for five years and are comfortable with that?

  8. ‘And, judging from the manifestos, we, the people, mostly want to be bribed with little or no thought to the consequences for the country’…..yeah that about sums it up…

  9. Well yh I guess. I was more thinkingof it as a framework. The inner workings would be the details. How iis the 10% for sport to be distributed, to which bodies, who disburses, how many times a year, what returns on the investment in sport is expected in 5-10 years etc.

  10. I don’t know if that is detailed enough though Stephen.

  11. I have always thought that National Policies are better than manifestos. What I mean is that the Govt would set certain percentages of our income towards our expenditure. So 10% for sport, 30% for healthcare or what ever percentage. This would be the standard now matter which party is ruling. The rolling out of these percentages would be what differentiates the parties. I don’t know if this would makes sense in our society, but I think it is worth a shot.

  12. At present, manifestos don’t matter. People don’t read them and they certainly don’t insist that politicians stick to them.
    I would bet anything that most politicians don’t even read them!
    But I still believe we can change our own political system. It only requires desire and patience.

  13. I considered TTOC president Brian Lewis’ suggestion that sport should be more proactive and directly lobby governments. And that makes perfect sense especially when you consider how many athletes and sport administrators we have.
    The problem is when we are split between two parties of different ethnicities and people vote for people who they feel looks like them.
    It is like we are on the bottom of the ladder when it comes to harnessing democracy.

  14. We need to be proactive and insist that our needs as groups are included in the various manifestos. And then we must do all we can to hold them to those promises.
    Otherwise manifestos are pointless.

  15. She’s right though. The fact that each party can launch their manifesto this late in the game, and thinks it’s OK, says a lot about the citizenry.

  16. I had an exchange in another thread which started with how wonderful the PNM promises were and how people would benefit. So I asked the question how are we paying for all this.

    Responses were that oil prices will rise again and that the Revenue Authority will deal with that.

  17. Hence the reason I’ve suggested, and many agreed that Dr. Rowley’s Conversations with the People should continue, bi-monthly, AFTER he takes on the mantle of Leadership. This would also give us, the electorate, the opportunity give feedback, and not have to wait five years for Election 2020. Three cheers for Sunity as she cleverly states:
    “So alien is this notion of negotiated interests that when presented with the platform of the Clico Policyholders’ Group, the political leader of the People’s Partnership described it as “blackmail”.
    One wonders whether she applies the same term to negotiations with political financiers behind closed doors.”

  18. I asked this question earlier today :

    Have you heard any party address the Trinidad economy in sufficient detail with a cogent analysis of how they will deal with falling energy prices coupled with falling oil output and lower gas reserves?

  19. What this suggests is that there should be some forum for consultation. And the policies are what should differentiate one party from the other-not what handouts you may benefit from. The problem is what recourse do you have when you are betrayed like the labour movement except to wait five years later to show your dissatisfaction. It appears we have a growing number of people who vote against a party rather than for the other party.

  20. It’s sad because politics in Trinidad is only about theft and free ting…