PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad — Take back schools and communities from so-called community leaders, chair of the Trinidad and Tobago National Commission for UNESCO, Dr Kris Rampersad told educators last week.
She was addressing the closing ceremony of a joint initiative by UNESCO and the Ministry of Education in Port of Spain for pilot training of some 125 principals, school supervisors and teachers.
“For too long our children have been kidnapped and our society has been hijacked and held to ransom by bandits and criminals who are held up as community leaders and to whom, tragically, the society now seems to be turning for advice to address the very problems they create. You are the community leaders,” Rampersad told the graduates, before they were presented certificates of completion of the course, Leading for Literacy Now!
Are we any wiser?
Do we have a sense of direction that will drive transformation of the governance of T&T?
Do we have a vision for a better framework of governance: made of the people of T&; for the people of T&T; and by the people of T&T?
Or are we merely repackaging old casked mercantilist rum in new bottles as we try to forcefit ourselves in one of two already tottering models of governance – the British Westminster system and the US Presidential model.
Time to rethink our approach for what works best for us.
To begin this probe, let’s flash back to an article written in the lead up to the 2010 elections: Have any of these found resolution in the recent rounds of constitutional reform talks; or have they been just that: talk? More in the introduction to Through the Political Glass Ceiling available on Amazon Kindle and local bookshops:
Constitutional Crisis of Leadership
Various analyses tell us that the leadership blunders of the past few decades point to the Trinidad and Tobago’s Constitution as the culprit, and there is an indisputable need for constitution reform, given evident flaws in T&T Constitutions past and present.
Both the 1961 (Independence) Constitution and the 1976 (Republic) Constitution were clearly already obsolete from their inception, with their unworkable British import of the first-past-the-post/winner-take-all model and evident failure, as they disenfranchise large numbers of voters, as occurred in the 1981, 2001, 2002 and 2007 general elections.
The alternative, proportional representation, which offers each party numbers of seats in Parliament, according to the proportion of votes they command, has received some attention, but, like first-past-the-post, it upholds a party-based system that gives politicians divine status, and places them at the centre of decision-making, which we have seen, with demands for a bottoms-up approach, itself cannot hold.
The Wooding (1971) and Hyatali (1974) Commissions, set up to explore constitutional reform, proposed another, a mixed system drawing from first-past-the-post and proportional representative models. This has been rejected by the PNM’s Williams and Manning, though all—PNM and the commissions—premised their arguments on our diversity which they defined largely as ethnic diversity.
Manning put forward, in 2006, a “working document” on constitutional reform, drawn up primarily by a one-man commission (former President Ellis Clarke), and after-the-fact staged some public “consultations”—an approach interpreted as paying lip service to public opinion. Executive president? His draft provided for an executive president, as in the USA, which would give even more executive powers to an already maximum leader of the first-past-the-post system, without correcting (but rather further emasculating) those instruments and institutions that provide checks and balances on such “Massa” power.
These include the judiciary and the legislature, and others as the Ombudsman, the Director of Public Prosecution, the Commissioner of Police, the magistracy, Commissions for Integrity, Judicial and Legal Services, Police Service, Public Service, Teaching Service. etc.
It also proposes to restrict the principle of freedom of expression (the media) by altering the Bill of Rights. Another constitution, drafted by the self-assigned 2006 Fairness Committee of four, leaned on a further amalgamation—of the Manning model (though produced before Manning’s) supporting an executive president, along with a mixed system of proportional representation and first-past-the-post, as recommended by the Wooding and Hyatali Commissions.
One challenge after the other to the constitution has surfaced, since the NAR, to show that the constitution is not just dog-eared, but coming apart at the seams and irrelevant in a rapidly-changing world:
1. The PNM’s challenge of Winston “Gypsy” Peters’ dual citizenship;
2. The 2002 18-18 deadlocked elections which were not catered for in the constitution;
3. Other challenges, mainly related to cockfighting, by Panday and Robinson—appointments through the Senate of people who had been defeated in the polls;
4. The chicken-and-egg crisis precipitated by the Standing Order for electing a Speaker before convening the House, when neither party wanted to propose a Speaker.
The constitution of Trinidad and Tobago, as it is, has outlived its usefulness.
To justify his quest for an executive president/US-styled governance system, (Then) PNM leader Patrick Manning has sought to justify his high-handed approach to decision-making with arguments that the extremely diverse nature of the society and their many competing interests made it difficult to govern, and needed “strong” leadership. But at the risk of sounding like a prophetess, the diversity of T&T is, indeed, its primary character, and anyone who cannot manage our diversity is doomed to failure!
Anyone who wants to govern effectively must unite the diversity, rather than seek ever more exclusive power to overrule it; (the consequences of ignoring the public over an extended period have been graphically illustrated by the events of recent weeks).
The constitution—and the Westminster-styled parliamentary system it establishes cannot accommodate that diversity.
The PNM—undeniably the most experienced party in T&T—argue that neither could proportional representation. Both, it seems, are partly in the right; but wholly wrong.
Leadership crisis—single party or coalition
The search for the ideal model has been around the debate of whether the single party or coalition government is the better model. Both have been tried and tested and found wanting. As analyst Dr Bishnu Ragoonath observed, the three occasions when our governments prematurely collapsed have been as single-party governments—Panday’s in 2001 and Manning’s in 1995, and 2010. Majority rule by a maximum leader, with powers equivalent to the divine right of kings, in a single party is losing sway on a population becoming more astute and unwilling to continue as blind, unquestioning, sheep-like followers.
Governance by any one majority ethnic group has become unsavoury to growing and more vociferous elements, demanding recognition of our cultural and other diversity, denied in Williams “No Mother India, no Mother Africa” maxim which seemed not to grasp the complexity of the identity issue.
Nor have coalitions worked either; not two examples, the alliance governments of 1986 and 1991—both of which evolved out of forces opposing the PNM and including Panday’s UNC, Robinson’s Democratic Action Congress, Karl Hudson-Phillips’ Organisation for National Reconstruction, Lloyd Best’s Tapia and various others.
They failed because…
They failed, not because the structure of the coalitions was tested, nor because of challenges of managing our complex diversity—they never got a chance. They failed because—as with the maximum leader mode of single-party politics—managing the diverse egos of a man-rat-driven political culture, continuously tested the constitution and the governance model, promoting the eminence of constitutional lawyers and legal Messiahs. They failed because of unenlightened or misguided leadership that failed to respect the needs and wishes of its people.