Civil society, perhaps more than any other sector, knows only too well that a healthy serving of scepticism inside the doubles is necessary when governments talk consultation.
In T&T, “consultation” is sometimes political-speak for “we eh touching that,” “we eh know what the hell to do with that” or “we know it’s the right thing but we go lose votes.”
On issues that are politically explosive, governments tend to pull out the old we-have-to-consult cop-out lodged permanently in their back pockets.
This has been the case with many of the major contemporary social questions facing societies such as legislation to include therapeutic indications for lawful abortions; decriminalisation of non-heterosexual orientations now known as LGBTQI and inclusion of that community under all the banners of protection afforded heterosexuals; the teaching of sexuality education in schools, which incidentally is basically the teaching of human sexual biology and culture; widespread and free availability of contraception for those who want it; and, of course, decriminalisation of marijuana.
Each of these issues, which the Prime Minister mistakenly referred to as “fashionable,” has been on the mind of the nation for some time. Whenever they burst through the politically placid surface, they are pushed under again with the we-have-to-consult cop-out.
The hypocrisy of the position is simultaneously evident to speaker and listener, both of whom do the dance of knowing and sighing.
I am pleased that Education Minister Anthony Garcia has resiled from his opening cavalier position that sexuality education will not be taught in schools. Hopefully, Mr Garcia has learned an early lesson about not making assumptions in 2015 that might have gone unnoticed 10 years ago.
I do hope, however, that his new signal for stakeholder consultations is genuine and not another incarnation of the “we eh touching that” cop-out.
Then there are the consultations designed to rubber stamp decisions already taken. These are generally easily identifiable: a government has a plan, has made all its arrangements and conducted its negotiations and calculations in secret, decided on its beneficiaries and timeline and then presents citizens with a complete package.
Suggestions for change are met with responses like “It’s too expensive to change that now,” “we have already committed to this and that” and “allyuh being obstructionist because allyuh have political bias.”
This manifested in the contested Debe to Mon Desir section of the Point Fortin Highway, Bhoe Tewarie’s plan for the development of Chaguaramas, was apparent with the 2013 amendments to the Municipal Corporations Act and was deviously fine tuned for the Constitution Amendment Bill 2014.
Then there are the perfunctory consultations. These involve people whose opening, middle and end positions are the same—no!
In this category would be the Finance Minister’s promised consultations with faith-based organisations on the Gaming and Betting Control Bill 2015 with a view to fast-tracking that legislative item so as to tax and regulate that industry.
Included here too are consultations with religious groups on human rights for gay citizens and lawful abortions in instances or rape and/or incest.
Most non-governmental organisations know the various consultations routines all too well. The business community has been the traditional go-to people for consultations; they lobby their perspectives in a number of ways and their views are generally considered by governments to be invaluable. In other words, money talks.
Other NGO sectors have had to work much harder to establish their voices as worthy of listening ears but in fact represent a much wider swath of citizens than business people.
The Minister of Finance and his Government have dedicated the next six months to consultations in order to chart the way forward beyond March 2016. One hopes these consultations will go beyond the energy industry, business people and the fine minds in high finance.
Civil society engagement, particularly with those that work in the social sector, is critical to the future of the country. Economic well being by itself will not take the country to a better place unless that well being is in turn used to improve the social climate.
The Government has introduced new offices designed to improve government financial accountability and transparency. The General Accounting Office of Parliament and the Police Management Agency are two reasons for optimism and some of that trust that eludes politicians.
In that context, I am willing to wager on the six-month period of open and meaningful consultations across all sectors.