As promised, I said I would focus on some sections of the document Constitutional Reform in the Caribbean. Last week I wrote about the Westminster system. Thanks to those readers who emailed me to say they appreciated it. What is abundantly clear is that many people are disenchanted with this system and recognize that it needs an overhaul.
This week I will be looking at the section of the report which was entitled, Local Government – Decentralization, Citizen Input and Community Action in Governance and Development. As I mentioned in the precious article, the Deputy Prime Minister at the time, Billie Miller (now a Dame), said in the conference that the emphasis on education in the region had produced a more knowledgeable citizenry, “which consequently demands more from its system of government, and which now expects, and quite rightly so, a greater degree of participation in the decision-making process.”
This is evidenced by the number of groups and Facebook sites that have emerged in the last few years in response to concerns about lack of transparency and accountability in the transactions of Government and to seek the input of ordinary citizens. Sometimes it may feel as if we are beating the air, but rest assured that we are not. According to two of our wonderful Bajan sayings: ‘Day does run till night catch it’ and ‘Blackbird does fly high, but it can’t live in the sky’. Translation for the non-Bajans: The day of reckoning will come and things will not remain the same way forever.
Why do we as citizens feel that we need to be involved in the decision making of the nation? It should be obvious, but it seems to escape some of the decision makers. There is wisdom in the multitude of counsellors. Therefore, a handful of people should not have carte blanche to make decisions that will impact the country for generations without any accountability for the outcome of those decisions.
I’m not suggesting that we have a referendum for every decision, but we certainly need to have some level of input for life changing decisions. Therefore we should have the input from various bodies and individuals outside of the executive before important legislation, such as the new Police Amendment Act is passed. This was rushed through Parliament in spite of concerns raised by the Bar Association and by members of the Senate. Here is a prime example of the futility of the Senate to truly challenge decisions handed down by the Lower Chamber. If we have 12 of the 21 members of the Senate appointed by Government, can we ever have anything but rubber stamping of legislation unless we have independent-minded Senators?
If it was “once in a blue moon” that some dubious transaction was passed in Parliament without any accountability, we might be tempted to let it slide, but when we start to see transactions such as Cahill, the Grotto, the Water Authority, BNTCL, Blue Horizon, Hilton and Four Seasons happening with regularity and irregularities and there is no reasonable explanation, or adequate provision of information, we need to make some noise. It is far past the time for citizens to demand and receive explanations and to have a say, or for independent experts to have a say in these decisions. A colleague of mine refers to the sales as yard sales, where you sell quickly at any price just to get a little money in the coffers. Let me hasten to add that there have been similar transactions under the BLP regime as well, so both sides must be held accountable.
However, I find it interesting that Britain, from which we got our Constitution, realized that its own governance needed to be restructured and made several changes in 1997. A 2007 a paper entitled “The Governance of Britain” was submitted to Parliament, which stated, “In 1997 the Government embarked upon a major programme of constitutional change. Power was devolved away from Westminster, fundamental rights were enshrined in the Human Rights Act, freedom of information was introduced and we completed the first stage towards a reformed House of Lords.” However they recognized that this was still not enough, hence the 2007 paper.
The proposals published in the paper sought to address two fundamental questions: How to hold power accountable? and How to uphold and enhance the rights and responsibilities of the citizen? This is where we are now in Barbados. We need to hold power accountable and we need to have more rights as citizens into the decision making of the country.
To give our input, we need a Government that is prepared to listen and to recognize that 16 or so people do not have the answers. That is where we need to start. But I also believe, as I said last week, that we need to change this system of Government. If we embraced a governance structure where each parish is represented by an independent, we could build on that to create a system of vertical communication where each community, neighbourhood or district, would have a voluntary representative to act as a coordinator for that area. The role of the coordinator would be to gather from and disseminate information to the citizens. This would be both problems and suggested solutions.
For example, we have a neighbourhood chat and the administrator is the coordinator for the neighbourhood. As I mentioned in another article, when we got tired of the potholes in our road and the encroaching bush, he and a couple of others arranged to deal with the issues and we all contributed to the cost. We had no need to go to Government – we dealt with it ourselves. This can be replicated in other communities, depending on the issue. Granted, not all communities might be able to do this, but once a month or once a quarter, all the community/ neighbourhood representatives could gather information from residents in their area and meet with their elected parliamentary representative to discuss them. At that meeting any issues that the community dealt with could be shared for the benefit of all and any issues that cannot be dealt with by the community could be brought to the attention of the elected representative.
In turn, the representative would share issues to be discussed in Parliament for the neighbourhood/community reps to take back to their community for input. Independent expert advice should also be sought by Parliament on these issues. At that meeting accurate economic indicators could be shared such as the level of foreign reserves, the state of the economy etc. and the measures that need to be taken. In this way communities will come together to solve their issues, there will be sharing of those solutions amongst communities and there would be communication with elected officials on a more regular basis than once every five years.
In closing, I will share these words from the Governance of Britain paper: “Without a shared national purpose, and a strong bond between people and government, we cannot meet the challenges of today’s world – whether in guaranteeing security, delivering world class education and health services,
building strong communities or responding to the challenges of globalisation.” That is not only true for Britain, but for all countries and certainly for Barbados.