Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author(s) do not represent the official position of Barbados TODAY.
by Rahym Augustin-Joseph
After one listens to the diverse views and perspectives of ordinary people over the last few weeks on Down BrassTacks about the Thorne Commission on Local Government in Barbados, one could glean that any democratisation of our political system must be able to successfully solve one principal issue if it is to be blessed with popular consensus and democratic validity.
It must effectively improve the delivery of basic government services in Barbados or else it will be relegated to the doldrums of history and viewed as another unnecessary layer of government which will only cost the tax payers of this country more money, in these difficult financial times.
Unfortunately, the Thorne Commission Report does not provide much solace to the ordinary person that their services will be more efficient and of more quality due solely to the efforts of the local government structure.
The bodies established within the Commission are not empowered with the levels of resources and political power to solve some of the issues of service delivery.
Instead, the People’s Assembly and other bodies in some respects established under the local government arrangement serve merely as advisory and scrutinising bodies under the close control of the central government.
The Report makes it clear when it notes that one of the main functions of the People’s Assembly is the scrutiny of Government agencies through the establishment of several Public Customer Service
Committees which will be akin to a consumer organisation – being the organised eyes, ears, and
consciences of the people who utilise the particular government service, and speaking up for and representing ºthe interests of these consumers.
Interestingly enough, but not surprising, the role of the committee will be distinct from the role of a board of a statutory corporation or from a trade union, and will serve merely as an organised extension of the clients or customers of the agency, representing the clients or customers and ensuring that standards of service are held high.
Their tools will be inspection powers, receiving of complaints and requesting meetings upon which they can suggest remedies and report to the public Is this any different from what your union or other agencies that represent you do? Or are we making the process of complaining longer and the delivery of services even longer?
Have we considered for one moment that we may be too small to undergo a system like this? Knowing the nature of the power sharing which occurs within our democracy, can one see any meaningful return on investment on this venture?
Why can we not just increase our resources towards government agencies as opposed to spinning top in mud and running in circles to arrive at the same location and individual to solve the issue?
Cognizant of this, it is why ordinary people have lamented that local government in its current proposed form seems to be a farce aimed at encouraging complacency among elected politicians who will defer their responsibilities but not their power to local government officials.
While the bodies will be engaged in robust debate on the priorities of development of the parish, the elected official will still hold the residual power of making the ultimate decision without clearly defined accountability mechanisms to the people.
We must only hope that stronger accountability mechanisms for Members of Parliament form part of the workplan of the upcoming process of Constitutional Reform.
What is clearly missing however is the daring inability of the commission to clearly define and demarcate the roles of the parliamentary representative and the local government in this new version of our democracy.
Inability to do so in a meaningful way will only reaffirm the views of ordinary people that this seems to be a duplication of roles and responsibilities. This is even more so when the Commission’s report only seems to articulate the expectations of the MP in our continued top-down approach to governance.
The current formulation does not provide any major governance responsibilities to the local government, save and except for assistance programs for the elderly, children, marginalised under the Community Wellbeing team, responding to emergency cases for garbage pileups, excessive overgrown bush, or pot-holes under the Environment Committee and overseeing community youth, cultural and sports programs.
Therefore, the complacency complained about among elected officials can only be solved through deeper checks and balances, a right to recall mechanism and also a more defined separation of powers doctrine which separates the role of the Member of Parliament from the Cabinet.
The Thorne Commission Report on Local Government is however an important step towards ensuring participatory governance as it allows ordinary people in their geographical locations to actively participate in the decision-making process and ultimately shape the lives and livelihoods of their community.
However, a deeper philosophical problem may deal a crippling blow to the well-intentioned regime.
The problem stems from our appreciation of our inherited limited system of representative democracy and what Maurice Bishop aptly described as five-second democracy with total deference to the politician as all-knowing as opposed to the citizenry actively seeking avenues to contribute towards the development of their societies as part of our social contract.
Therefore, any attempts at local governance will require a major change in the minds of our people to understand their roles as active citizens and also that representative democracy does not negate direct participation of our peoples.
Amidst the inability to clearly articulate how the service delivery impediments will be solved in this new dispensation of democracy, the Commission Report does provide avenues for further participation by youth, disabled, residents, private sector, women among other demographics.
It allows the various agencies to contribute towards the provisions of small licences and engage in consultation on planning developments.
However, the commission report within its current iteration must not fall privy to the same deficiencies with our political system and settle a system of removal or right to recall of local elected officials, provide a stance on the debarring of civil servants from serving in political institutions in this country and provide stronger checks and balances on the elected officials which goes beyond provisions of reports
and engaging with constituents in townhall meetings, remove the immunity from legal liability and stronger administrative tribunals to hold members accountable.
In the end, our ability to solve some of these pressing issues will determine how best we actualise many hands make light work or fall into spoilt broth. Start your active citizenship by reading the Thorne Commission on Local Government.
Rahym Augustin-Joseph is a second-year student of the UWI Cave Hill Campus from Saint Lucia reading for a double major in Political Science. He aspires to be an attorney-at-law and is passionate about the intertwining of politics and law and its ability to transform the Caribbean civilisation through the empowerment of people. These views are not affiliated to any organization that he is affiliated with but are reflective of his own views. Rahym Augustin-Joseph can be reached via [email protected]