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OFF CENTRE: Democracy’s strict guardians? Where?

Sherwyn Walters

OFF CENTRE: Democracy’s strict  guardians? Where?

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Ah cahn leh this t’ing rest.
How long can a country that calls itself a democracy but is always flirting with less than satisfactory “political” management – and this en nothing that started in 2008 – go on with little organised citizen input beyond the very important helping out by NGOs (non-governmental organisations) with family planning, community development, road safety, the differently abled community, disaster emergencies, children, heritage and so on, and no NGOs that robustly engage the practice of governance?
I don’t mean groups with electoral ambitions or politically partisan interests. Those kinds of groups, although not good for nothing, cannot honestly be seen as the sturdy pillars of a democracy.
Unfortunately, one of our greatest lacks is governance accountability – in, for instance, assuring the best decision making, transparency, freedom of information, integrity in public office, the individual rights of citizens, vibrant people participation in shaping policy, and controls on corporate power.
And, of course, limiting of undue influence (not excluding matters like a politician “placing” employees in Government jobs).
Plus all those other things that a strong democracy requires.
But it looks as if Barbadians hold to “God is in His heaven; all’s right with the world” in relation to that crucial aspect of governance. Oh sure, they want the economy fixed, and tourism and health and education and so on.
The politicians, even if different sides disagree on approaches, would say that they have a focus on those things. But both they and the general populace seem not to passionately care about other matters that are critical to shaping a healthy democracy.
Perhaps that explains why throughout the region, as Denzil Douglas runs a virtual dictatorship in St Kitts, refusing for about 20 months now – you could imagine that? Twenty months!!! – to have parliamentary sessions for fear of losing a no-confidence motion, few strident voices have been raised in opposition to this assault on the people.
While their CARICOM “brother” (their more audacious kin?) stymies democratic process in the former St Christopher, other governing politicians in the region look away – as they had done in the case of Antigua’s Birds and Guyana’s Burnham. And their local populations seem not to care either.
I suppose yuh could say that Britain was trying to point us in the right direction when in granting independence to the various islands in the Caribbean, this coloniser that never had a written constitution itself insisted that each of the new countries start out with a written one – and it oversaw the crafting of the documents.
But yuh know what? The constitution of a Caribbean country is like the Gideon Bible in a hotel room: management could not care less if you know what’s in it. Our elected officials have not made the constitution a vital part of our socialisation.
Up north federal law requires all government agencies and federally funded schools to teach the United States constitution. George Washington said: “What species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty more pressing . . . than communicating [the constitution] to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?”
Do we behave like present and future guardians of the liberties of this country?
Indeed, have you noticed that the things we usually tackle are those that have ministries and ministers?
Are we going to continue to be thus led in what we pay attention to? Yuh mean we would have to have a Ministry (and Minister) of Individual Rights or a Ministry of Democracy or a Ministry of Police Legality or a Ministry of Integrity in Public Office or a Ministry of Freedom of Information or a Ministry of Political Honesty for us to focus significant attention on those things? Come on!
We need to-scale entities that are the equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union (our taxpayer-educated lawyers should long have been going in that direction), the Public Citizen Litigation Group, the Centre for Responsive Politics, Common Cause, First Amendment Coalition, the Innocence Project and a variety of other activist watchdog organisations.
But even if our minds and efforts take us in more traditional directions, our arsenal must include activism – not just “helping out” or advocacy.
A fellow was telling me the other day that he thinks our education system is slipping and something should be done to get it to achieve the highest standards. But, as is the case in many other areas, there are no citizen “push” bodies judging, policing and vigorously impacting education.
So the Ministry of Education does whatever it deems good and proper, the teachers’ unions seemingly wait for the next grievance report from a member, and the rest of the country either grumbles or simply acquiesces to the pace and turn of the ministry.
Nothing like the AFT (American Federation of Teachers) – on whose website the first two things you will probably see are “Become an AFT e-Activist” and “Reclaim the Promise”, about the AFT president’s vision of the organisation’s intent and strategy to take back the public schools of America.
Or the NEA (National Education Association), the website of which immediately draws your attention to a section called Issues and Action and as I write there is a story entitled Educators Defeat Attempt To Strip Teachers Licenses Over Test Scores. Education activism.
I feel artists and artistes have a dynamic role to play too. How come we have never had a significant number of our calypsonians, especially the “social commentary” ones, coming together to raise their singing voices in a non-partisan fight against a governance transgression (joining a real battle, not a competition)?
They must play roles that do not make bystanders of the people or themselves. In this regard, I am reminded of the title of Doug Borwick’s interesting book: Building Communities, Not Audiences.
For all the talk about the importance of social commentary calypso, the most that we have to show from it is practitioners and devotees simply waiting for the next season of competition rather than activists who are keenly alert to and ready to act against next danger posed by the powers that be.
Wanted: strict guardians of our democracy.
• Sherwyn Walters is a writer who became a teacher, a song analyst, a broadcaster and an editor.