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Participation paralysis; Daly considers our reluctance to speak to power

We have peacefully changed another Government.  Having been disappointed yet again by a previous choice of Government, the prevailing mood of many citizens is that we hope once more for better and fairer governance.

Photo: President Anthony Carmona (right) swears in Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley. (Copyright Reuters)
Photo: President Anthony Carmona (right) swears in Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.
(Copyright Reuters)

It swiftly became the cliché of the day that we “exhaled.”

There is however something striking as I listen to the conversations accompanying the exhaling and the new Cabinet appointments.  It is this: We apparently know what we expect and want from a new Government in terms of better and fairer governance but we do not intend to do much to contribute towards that important objective.

Some claim a general fear of intimidation or anticipate victimisation but there is more to it than that.

There are several aspects to this participation paralysis in our small country.  One is size.  Interlocking groups of persons are related to each other not only by blood or marriage.

There are allegiances based on race, religion, schools attended or being in some way or another in the same “batch.”

Photo: Reshmi Ramnarine (far right) shares a drink with former Education Minister Dr Tim Gopeesingh.
Photo: Reshmi Ramnarine (far right) shares a drink with former Education Minister Dr Tim Gopeesingh.

These allegiances are of course normal and mostly healthy. However in a micro state in which the Government is a dominant player in the economy, the largest employer and has little or no published policy guiding the distribution of State largesse, these allegiances retard or stifle participation in the political process for fear of upsetting the prospects of one’s own advancement or that of a family or batch member.

We cannot alter our size.  In order to enable citizens to step forward on issues we have to address the role of the Government in the economy—a massive issue consistently ducked even by the business community—and the lack of published policy defining how a Government intends to exercise its constitutional powers and the overwhelming management powers and prerogatives derived therefrom, particularly its spending powers.

By way of example, I remind readers that I have persistently raised the lack of a cultural development policy, which means that Government financial support for the arts is done on an ad hoc, lobbying and contact basis.  In such an unstructured system, stridency of demand frequently prevails over merit.

Our post-colonial insecurity and identity crisis is another reason for participation paralysis. Political leadership that has taught us to measure our level of civilisation only by material wealth and perceived status has deepened this insecurity and fortified the dependency and acquiescence syndromes as the pathway to power.

Photo: Former Health Minister Dr Fuad Khan (right) shares a tender moment with UNC financier Ish Galbaransingh who is wanted for corruption by the United States Government. (Courtesy Trinidad Guardian)
Photo: Former Health Minister Dr Fuad Khan (right) shares a tender moment with UNC financier Ish Galbaransingh who is wanted for corruption by the United States Government.
(Courtesy Trinidad Guardian)

I have regularly dealt with the ready acquiescence of those who could contribute to the establishment of some semblance of standards of governance up to quite recently.

Can we rescue political power from the feeding trough from which many snouts—including a growing number among the business and professional classes—have been unwilling to raise for a decade at least?

The contents of the trough include potent paralysing items, apart from money, such as state enterprise appointments and politically controlled honours and awards, as well as PBR passes, fete tickets and other widely varied freebies and complimentaries.

I am also concerned how access to the attention of a Minister is tightly controlled by those who constantly position themselves to tout that “they can get you in there” and who seduce the new Ministers by holding their drinking glasses, and generally performing like butlers rather than advisers whichever party is in power.

As I observed this again last week I prayed silently that new Ministerial heads would not swell as a result.

Photo: Finance Minister Colm Imbert.
Photo: Finance Minister Colm Imbert.

Then there is the criticism made of the choice of Colm Imbert as Finance Minister.  Assuming—but not agreeing—that an experienced financial specialist is necessary for the Finance Ministry, how is the Prime Minister to appoint such a person if no one in that discipline offers himself or herself as a candidate for election or appointment?

It is futile to demand a resource from the new Prime Minster that is not made available.

This is an appropriate time to ask again whether the filing cabinet provisions of the Integrity In Public Life Act requiring declarations of assets have not proved counterproductive, particularly in a culture where confidentiality is regularly breached.

Youth and relative youth has been another ground for criticism of appointments to this new Cabinet.  Personally I am happy to have Ministers less than fifty years old. We need some generational change in ideas. It happens in the private sector.

Meanwhile I strongly recommend that the Minister of Energy’s lawsuit against a state enterprise go to immediate mediation.

Photo: Minister of Energy Nicole Olivierre.
Photo: Minister of Energy Nicole Olivierre.

We have had enough of the conflict of interest inherent in lawsuits with the State, or agents of the State—on both sides of a damages claim—some richly settled beyond the parameters of independent advice.

These are early days in the life of a new Government.  In 2010, by July, I had expressed misgivings about some directions in which Kamla was going.  I am hoping PNM 2015 will not be heading off the rails within two months.

AboutMartin Daly

Martin Daly
Martin G Daly SC is a prominent attorney-at-law. He is a former Independent Senator and past president of the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago. He is chairman of the Pat Bishop Foundation, a board member of The Little Carib Theatre and Folkhouse and a steelpan music enthusiast.

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50 comments

  1. This is 2015. The ministers should have official fb pages for communications purposes. How are our views are taken into consideration?.. the Internet would allow true democracy. ..crowd sourcing approach

  2. Our reluctance to speak to power stems from the fallacy that we are powerless.

  3. Noteworthy: “We apparently know what we expect and want from a new Government in terms of better and fairer governance but we do not intend to do much to contribute towards that important objective.” & “Our post-colonial insecurity and identity crisis is another reason for participation paralysis. Political leadership that has taught us to measure our level of civilisation only by material wealth and perceived status has deepened this insecurity and fortified the dependency and acquiescence syndromes as the pathway to power.” Nothing partisan or false about those truths.

  4. I didn’t get from this article that Daly is a seething anti PNM. On the contrary I think he’s willing to adopt a wait and see attitude and give them a chance. He also pointed out a very valid reason why people may be reluctant to serve on a public level (boards…ministerial or whatever ) and that is the onerous demands of the integrity filings. He has a good point.

  5. The reality is that many of the legislative and policy issues have no direct impact on the majority of the population. The technocrats are there to provide the assistance and guidance and I don’t see that changing because technical fields are always going to require same.

    Take for example legislation regarding the provision of financial products that govern the stock market. It would be meaningless to the wider society beyond those directly affected. Rules that prohibit some of the acts that take place in this society are required but such measures would never be popular. How would legislation and policies surrounding these issues be dealt with in the supposed utopia of popular debate and consensus?

    Note that I am not saying that this is a Trinidad and Tobago issue. Popular sentiments in Europe is anti – austerity but that doesn’t change the fact that some measures were necessary to address the economic realities. Never lose sight that tertiary level education is less than 20% of the population of Trinidad and Tobago. I can just picture the scene of thousands of debaters refusing to cut goverment expenditure while our budget deficit rises. That should work out just fine.

  6. I hold no brief for Mr Daly (who, BTW, is more than competent to handle his own briefs.) But anyone arriving at the conclusion that MD is anti-PNM can only have done so – unjustly, mind you! – on the basis of today’s column. It’s like deciding that Lara is not a better batsman than Tendulkar on the basis of watching him make 16 for the Rest of the World XI last week.

  7. The fact is that we as citizens have power that we don’t exercise in all walks of life. We don’t exercise our consumer power and put up with poor service and price increases all the time. We don’t even exercise the power granted within the existing legislation.

    It is the same with political power. A substantial portion of the population does not vote. We do not generally get involved on the issues and this is reflected in the quality of the political campaigning which is poor beyond belief.

    • Aha, Kendall! “We don’t even exercise the power granted within the existing legislation.
      It is the same with political power. A substantial portion of the population does not vote. We do not generally get involved on the issues…” Voila! Augustus Ramrekersingh was already pointing this out in Tapia in the mid-70’s. We will have advanced the game significantly when we discover WHY this is so.
      Do you have any ideas on the why?

    • That would be a very long conversation not suited for this forum Earl. Most times, people get involved with respect to issues that they personally support or things that impact them directly. I have observed that they rarely make efforts in respect to things outside that paradigm.

      Consider that part of the legacy of dependancy politics as well as a failure of the education system to inculcate civics in students at any level. I was lucky enough to be taught by some teachers who nurtured independent thought and not book learning. They made a lasting impression.

  8. Referendums are a good thing but hopefully its a first past the post system, we got enough signatures to get Medical Marijuana on the ballot, esp for my impending glaucoma if it passes, but in my dumb state a referendum needs 60% of the vote and polls currently show us with 57% support

  9. That sounds like paralysis having thousands voting their own narrow interests. It would also reduce legislation to what is popular which can be dangerous in the sense that there are times when the popular road is not what we need.

    The idea of referendums has been bandied about and probably should be introduced.

    • Referendums may be an idea but just like proportional representation these things should be taught in schools so that the future voters will have an understanding of what they involve and the importance each process may play in our democracy. People bandy about phrases nowadays like its a badge… we no longer say we are going to talk to all relevant persons… we talking to key stakeholders… in other words we going talk to the people who have the money not necessarily everyone that will be affected.

    • Kendall, referendums work for specific issues. I think what people are discussing here is ONGOING wide public participation in governance issues. I have no answers at the moment but referenda are definitely not the answer. But I suggest that w’ll hardly get nowhere fast if we fall back on the tried and tested “solutions.” What is needed, I submit, is fresh, new thought that does not quite constrained by the existing conventions and constraints.

    • The thing is Vladimir, I have been to national consultations where very few people turned up time and time again all over the country. The topic? A national ICT policy framework for Trinidad and Tobago. Technical to be sure and lots of differing opinions expressed by fractions with their own agendas. Level of wider public participation? Practically zero despite the advertising campaign on the sessions that were held throughout Trinidad and Tobago.

    • He is missing my point. When government seeks out views for legislation and policies, the general public interest is low. Hundreds of thousands of people can’t even be bothered to vote. Change in system isn’t the solution. Change in societal attitudes is required.

    • Kendall I agree with you. I think there is societal apathy with regards to government and participation. As I said before I think we need to encourage kids in primary school and up about civics. We can’t force adults to see the necessity to participate in the creation of policies and legislation it has to be ingrained in them that desire. It is why when the Proportional Representation bandwagon was going about with Hamid Ghany I believe, and they put the proposal to parliament that people were shocked! We didn’t want to go out to the town meetings etc we were too busy watching tv, sleeping that we only found out what it entailed when it was too late!!!!

  10. Shiva there is where there can be evolution. At present the bills are championed by the MPs but created by technocrats from within based on what they may think will improve the country. How many citizens have petitioned their MPs on an issue and had the MP come to parliament to raise and debate it? How many MPs have come to parliament looking at getting funding/jobs/factories etc for their district? The MPs need to have their ears to the ground and the citizens need to be more active in discussion or raising issues otherwise things will not change.

    • Well, perhaps things will change now if the PNM keeps its promise to beef up local government. Perhaps we shall not find ourselves constrained to appeal so much to the ear of the MP as to the ear of the local govt representative. Those who share your concerns should be pressing for Rowley and co to deliver on their local govt reform promise…and well before the approach of the next general elections!

  11. Daly said in his pre election article here that it would be difficult for the PNM to win the 2015 Parliamentary . Daly was the master mind behind the censure of John Jeremie AG, Daly is a seething anti PNMITE. So many things the PP did wrong where was Martin?

    • I thought Lasana made an (albeit indirect) appeal to people recently not to make wild accusations without adducing supporting evidence… I’m not defending MD but I’m not defending JJ either. The issue is do you have evidence that MD “masterminded the censure of JJ”? And why would there be something wrong with that if JJ deserved censure? How does that qualify asanti-PNM?

    • He did march against them in protest. I was there and saw him.

    • Actually I have read Daly over the years and he is one who strikes me as truly independent. Has no desire to eat ah food. Seems quite content to be a respected SC and he loves his pan. I think Daly is at the stage of his life where he has everything he wants. I actually thought he would make an excellent AG. If anything I see him as anti-stupidness…regardless of who in power.

  12. Why can’t the public write a Bill and get their Congressman or representative to introduce it on the floor, debate and ultimately pass or reject it, yeah u might get no credit and may only be asked to testify on behalf of the bill, but that is how I got my Pension Reform bill signed into law by President Bush after if passed both the House and Senate

  13. What irks me is many bills in parliament the public disagrees with

    I hated the anti gang bill
    I hated the sec bill
    Yet these things get passed without public input or agreement

  14. Well minority groups can’t get anything passed without majority agreement

  15. That’s an interesting thought. But how do you stop minority groups from taking advantage of the system? The possible bureaucracy could be tremendous too.
    But nice to have new ideas because maybe they can be tweaked and lead to something better.

    • New ideas are always welcome. But the numbers with new ideas or any kind or of enhancing -of -policies posts are minuscule compared to the other kinds of posts.
      Notwithstanding , it would be very intriguing to have some kind of broader representation from across both islands and from a wide cross section. of the population.
      The how to achieve that in a fair and equitable (and perceived as such) will take some doing.

  16. Well that no could be restricted by qualifying hurdles lol

  17. Have you really seen and read some of the comments on FB? I shudder to think that such posters could possibly make decisions on my behalf.

  18. I’m going beyond referendums

    Referendums is just a transition to proper popular democracy

  19. only socialism can correct these ills…forward kyon!

  20. Kyon is it that you are suggesting mechanisms for referendums on major issues be put into place?

  21. Excellent thinking as usual; pristine insight. Respect this writer.

  22. We need to give decision making to larger group of citizens via the Internet
    The parliament must grow to allow thousands of citizens to debate bills amend them and vote on them

    And even with the present format the president shouldn’t sign bills without mass approval even after being passed by the parliament

    • Not a new idea. Lloyd Best suggested decades ago that we need a “big macco senate” for precisely that purpose. The modalities will need to be discussed but I am not sure the idea of using the Internet is as impractical as it sounds at first blush. If the so many of the first world’s universities successfully have tuition via distance learning…

    • this presumes that this larger group of citizens is informed enough to debate the substantive aspects of law based on analysis….I don’t think that such a presumption can be sustained in T&T in 2015

    • But some documents are out for public consultation – after the fact. … I prefer that these be known about on the onset ……

  23. Be more specific re the desired evolution please

  24. I’ve been saying the representative democracy and the idea of MPs is for an older age when communications weren’t as advanced and power was concentrated in the hands of few landowners

    We need to evolve