Monday, December 02, 2002

I've had a couple of interesting responses to my earlier post arguing for the organisation of an unofficial "people's senate" as a first concrete step towards constitution reform here in T&T.

Damien asks the following:

"What makes you think that the interest groups would not act in their own interests instead of the interest of the nation?

"What Lloyd Best is saying is at that a way has to be found to get the people interested in the process. Your proposed solution, as obvious as you make it sound, will merely give power to the leaders of NGOs, not to the people themselves. This, of itself, is not a good or bad thing; but given the conservative nature of Trinidadians, especially when it comes to decision-making, what makes you think your senate will actually do anything?"

Yes, the interest groups (as the term suggests) would act, unsurprisingly, in their own interests. This is how politics gets started; people form groups to further their individual goals, & then these groups form alliances with each other via negotiation & compromise, resulting in larger parties with coherent positions & agendas. In other words, "the interest of the nation" can be calculated only by working the particular interests of individual citizens into the equation of politics. That's how democracy works.

Further, if the "people's senate" delegates were chosen from a sufficiently wide base, most citizens would be represented several times over. The "senators" would be there at the sufferance of the groups nominating them. If a delegate acted against the wishes of the majority of the group he represented, the members of the group would be free to act to recall that delegate. The delegates would thus be responsible to the people they represented in a way that our MPs currently are not, and ordinary citizens might at last achieve the genuine representation that T&T's constitutional arrangements have effectively denied them since independence.

And what makes me think "my" senate would actually get anything done? I don't know if it would! No one does. That's the idea — organise the thing as a prototype, a trial run, with no legal authority, & see if it's feasible. Maybe it would collapse ignominiously, & we'd know this isn't the way to go. Maybe it would quickly achieve greater moral & political legitimacy than parliament & lead to a revolutionary change in the way the country works.

My friend Anu's question is much trickier to answer:

"About the people's senate, a concern: in T&T, can we? Our apathy is endless. We can't commit in a meaningful way to things that are dead serious and that have very real consequences. We see it repeatedly — we simply don't care. Why we don't care, I don't pretend to know. How to get us to care, I know even less. My point is I don't have much faith that we are so keen to be represented that we'd devote a lot of time and energy to something so abstract. An exercise to prove a theory, not quite action in itself. What you are proposing is real work. But I'm willing — I'm hoping — to be wrong."

A fundamental confession: I am an instinctive optimist (even if the state of the nation & the world, & the frequent, casual venalities & cruelties of my fellow men & women, trigger frequent eruptions of despair within). I choose to believe that, given a clear choice between self-determination and dictatorship — for, nakedly, that's what this whole constitution reform process is about — the citizens of T&T would choose self-determination & the responsibilities that go with it. For forty years now the politicians' rhetoric has been intended to convince us that democracy was safe in their hands; for forty years the politicians' manipulation of constitutional arrangements & blatant patronage has been intended to preserve maximum power for whichever executive is in office, unaccountable to no one, except, imperfectly, once every five years.

Parliament, which ought to act on behalf of the people to check executive power when necessary, has never been more than an instrument for ratifying decisions already taken by the prime minister. The consitutional "crisis" of 2001–2002 finally exposed this awful fact for all to see. More & more of us are facing up to what must be done, & the efforts of the CRF & the independent senators, among others, are prodding the process along. Sooner or later, if the politicians do not succeed in distracting us again, the demand for reform may reach critical mass. When the time comes, we will need some practical mechanism to make that demand politically legitimate. My suggestion is that the "people's senate" could be the necessary mechanism. It would also be a major test of our will. Do we want a change so badly that we'd do the "real work" necessary? Maybe the only way to know is to give it a try.

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