Monthly Archives: July 2011

Battle for the budget

The Artists’ Coalition of Trinidad and Tobago (ACTT) is attempting to get cultural sector reform at a time when the entire apparatus of the State is paralysed due to the collapse of the cult of the Maximum Ruler. The demands that ACTT champion have been outstanding since Independence.

Under maximum rulership none of these ideas were adopted because they did not come from the ruler. Now that the cult of the ruler was removed ACTT is attempting to get these generational demands implemented. What ACTT has found is a governance system that has only known one way to operate for 500 years. The things that ACTT has discovered are instructive for the nation as we are testing every single level of the public service and government, trying to find parts that work and identify parts needing reform…

When we last left off, ACTT’s activism with NAPA had possibly caused a premature election. We then met with both political parties, but got culture sector demands adopted in only the People’s Partnership manifesto. Both parties however, continued to speak to ACTT during the election.

However, once the election was won, all politicians abandoned dialogue. ACTT now had to find ways to engage the government. This ability of governments to ignore citizens except during elections is built into our system. There are no forums for citizens to engage parties in dialogue once they are in government. Except to burn tyres… This is the reason why Lloyd Best and Tapia dreamed up the concept of the Big Macco Senate.

The Big Macco Senate is a senate made up of representatives of all the civic interests in the country — business, labour, arts, youth, religions, etc. It is a forum where the interests of the citizenry are engaged permanently in the process of governance. Until there is such an entity, groups like ACTT will have to manoeuvre outside, trying to get the attention of politicians who are supposed to be serving our interests.

So ACTT found itself locked out after the election because we do not have a party card. We would not accept it. Twenty-six packages were sent, none were answered. We kept meeting with our sector and refining the sector master plan. Many other NGOs lost touch with their stakeholders as they sat back, waiting for a miracle to occur.

ACTT instead began to agitate for our sector to send a message to the Government that we weren’t sitting back and waiting for bad decisions. We wanted to talk. These “rumbles” took the form of attention-getting strategies letting leaders know we meant business. These caught the ear of our line minister who set up a meeting with us. Our plan was to get the stakeholder master plan accepted by the Ministry and integrated into the year’s budget for culture. Getting stakeholder ideas into the budget is critical — the Budget establishes the operational blueprint for the sector.

So we had our meeting with the minister. But after 30 minutes it was aborted. It was not clear if the minister understood the urgency of the sector demands. T&T’s cultural industries are collapsing because of the non-adoption of these stakeholder suggestions… A longer meeting was promised. It never materialised.

We tried every official channel. No call was ever returned. Meanwhile the budget drew closer and ministerial decisions were being made contrary to sector desires. We faced the prospect of another year of artists’ demands being locked out of the budget!

ACTT rallied our sector in large meeting, making threatening noises. We sent word with the minister’s friends as to the urgency. Finally a three-hour meeting was set up with the senior staff of the ministry to present the master plan. It was a breakthrough. However, an hour before the meeting, a senior public servant in the ministry called and told us the meeting would be brought forward by half an hour. And could last only half an hour! This meant that the meeting would now end at the time it was supposed to have started! The official requested we call the 26 other groups and inform them of the change. Of course this was impossible. So what I am saying is that there may be public servants who do not want national reforms to happen. And that they may be responsible for blocking many initiatives from happening. This is a recurring theme.

ACTT arrived and presented half an hour of the master plan before the meeting was closed. Culture sector members were in an uproar. In the following days we kept calling to reschedule. We were finally told we could meet the minister — one month after the budget.

We have never been granted a meeting since. Lesson: there must be mechanisms built in so that ministers have to meet sector representatives regularly if the system is to function. Ministers cannot be allowed to ignore their primary stakeholders …

ACTT continued to try to find a way. One board member saw an ad for open budget consultations with the Ministry of Finance. This was unprecedented. In the past only select groups had the ear of finance ministers preparing budgets. This was Minister Dookeran’s initiative — an example of the COP’s idea of new politics and open government. ACTT leapt at it. We entered negotiations with our master plan. After being locked out, this was a way in.

(Continued on Aug 12 in Getting Into the System)

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From the front lines

After the fall of the maximum leader, the system has been frozen because it always depended on a tyrant daddy to make things happen. To transform this system will require change to happen in the political parties and within the ranks of citizens. Both have been paralysed into different kinds of dependency by maximum rulership. The place where most of the reforms will have to be implemented is within the structure of the Public Service. The main way this will happen is through constitutional reform.

My group—the Artists’ Coalition of Trinidad and Tobago (ACTT)—is the umbrella body for cultural groups in the nation. We have been advancing artists’ interests since 1997, in one form or the other. People know us because of NAPA (National Academy for the Performing Arts), but we have staged marches and lobbied for many causes under the last three administrations. The way that ACTT has engaged government after the fall of the maximum ruler has been different from other groups and gives us a window into areas that require reform.

Most other groups have not known how to respond to the disappearance of the maximum leader: some are frozen, waiting for an imaginary People’s Partnership Government saviour, others, like unions, retreated into regular roles of screaming at daddy, even though he no longer exists. ACTT engaged the possibilities of change with both hands. History showed us that our demands were impossible under the maximum ruler.

Since Independence, not one sector demand had ever been granted. Except NAPA. And the ruler had stolen the idea, claimed it was his and refused to listen to counsel. The tragedy of the maximum ruler is that, under that system, there can only be one idea. The ruler’s.

Now, ACTT was going to try to do what had been impossible since Independence—to get the Government to listen to our concerns, adopt our thinking and implement reforms. This is the story of our adventure.

The story picks up after the 2010 elections was called, on the heels of the NAPA scandal. The then government had launched a million-dollar, possibly libellous, campaign against ACTT. We were public enemy number one to the ruling party, and an X-factor to the others. All ACTT was concerned about was that an election had been called, and this was an opportunity to get both parties to adopt culture sector positions in their manifestos.

In an election, politicians need the people. They suddenly are available to listen—even to enemies. We all know certain sectors of the country get their promises in manifestos—mainly business. Business gets parties to promise stuff, and business calls in these promises after election. But business has campaign financing to back up their manifesto promises. ACTT is a “brokes” grassroots organisation. But we believed that the arts are a critical national sector. We were going bold-faced to demand to be heard.

We assembled culture leaders and got a list of demands. We then went to both political parties to include them into manifestos. Yes, we know politicians break manifesto promises all the time. But we wanted to get them to commit in print to them. For the first time ever. The PNM (People’s National Movement) got the list ten days before the People’s Partnership. The PNM included none of the cultural sector’s demands in their manifesto…because only the maximum leader’s vision must exist.

The Partnership cut and pasted almost our entire list into their manifesto. Nearly every single word in the Partnership’s manifesto is from ACTT’s document. Two copies were sent —one to Mrs Persad-Bissessar and another to Mr Dookeran. The COP ensured the sector’s demands found their way into the document.

During the election, we still tried to contact the PNM’s leadership, through party members, to get them to understand the sector’s needs. None of these attempts bore fruit. During the campaign, politicians from both parties got my number and called regularly for sector information. I gave both the information. Meanwhile, ACTT did not rest. We met with our stakeholders and created a five-year masterplan for our sector, with first-year budgetary programmes. We wanted to be ready for whomever formed Government.

The People’s Partnership won. We were happy because the Partnership had committed to our demands in their manifesto. It meant we had a negotiating tool.

From the day after the elections, all politicians who had my cell number became uncotactable. Except Anil Roberts. ACTT tried to get conversations with members of the new Government, and got none. After ministers were sworn in, ACTT sent 26 packages to different ministries regarding the cultural sector. To this day, we have never gotten a single response. We followed up with dozens of phone calls. None was ever returned. As a representative group, we were completely locked out of the corridors of power. Once again.

This is our system. This is why constitutional reform is necessary. There are no pathways into government for the citizenry to engage dialogue. None. Except if you know the PM or somebody close. My next articles will reveal step-by-step ACTT’s experience of the inner machinery of government and how the paralysis happens.

Building an ark

My first article stated that Trinidad and Tobago is undergoing its most fertile period since independence, having destroyed the centuries-old cult of the maximum leader. This was a system where a “big personality” leader centralised all decision-making powers in Cabinet, and where institutions throughout the country were gutted of visionaries and independent thinkers.

Everywhere in charge were mediocre talents whose job was to follow orders and maintain the status quo.

At the present moment, the nation finds itself in a new frontier where it now has absolutely no protocols to govern itself and advance its agendas. This article examines the paralysis and neuroses that have taken its place—and the opportunies that lie after that.

We all must confess: without a daddy ordering us around, the system is at sea. Even for those who hated daddy! We need to understand that this is not how other countries work.

In other nations there are stand-alone institutions led by genius specialists who lead teams of gifted individuals. These institutions independently go about their work with clarity of intention and purpose. Despite whoever is in power! These institutions can even prosecute the leader without fear, if he or she betrays certain protocols! Witness one arm of the State moving to impeach a standing president during the Clinton years. These things can happen in a healthy society where independent thought is valued, where centres of excellence are encouraged.

There are no such institutions in T&T, certainly none in government. Everyone here is waiting for orders. On top, what has replaced the gaping hole left by maximum leadership is a Cabinet of individuals. Whereas the previous administration was ruled by one man’s psychosis, this government has no central intelligence, no unifying dream. It is all petty appetite, the miniscule jostle for position, personal agendas and some decent people at sea.

Meanwhile, public servants try to operate machinery by the book. There have been hundreds of statements and acts of individual vaps. Most of these have been uttered without a sense of history and lineage. Most of the ridiculous mistakes we have witnessed have come from this groping in the dark.

In the past, order was imposed by the fear of the maximum leader. For half a second, the country was humoured by this new, atomised decision-making. That honeymoon is over. People want results—results that come from history-based analysis and creative solution engineering.

So what is going on? Many NGOs have been groping for the solution to the paralysis for the last nine months. Hardly anything from the 2011 budget has been implemented. Without a whip, nobody understands how things are supposed to work. People have been exhausting past behavioural patterns in a futile effort to find one that fits. But the moment demands more.

For the last 15 years, ordinary people have exposed the excesses of the past two regimes—at great personal risk. These people have found levers in the country to get government to change course—commissions of enquiry and the Integrity Commission, for instance. In most cases the levers have been outside of government—exposes in the press, and mass action.

Many of these tactics are suited for a landscape at war. But what happens when we are at peace? What happens when we just want things to function well? What does that look like? None of these previous tactics really apply to the system at rest. At rest, all of the progressive groups in the country have completely stalled.

These groups form the vanguard of what I called the visionary citizen. It is from within this corps that the new architecture will come. What happened after the election has been instructive. Progressive groups immediately found themselves locked out of governance. Just as before. Within our Crown Colony system, there are no institutional mechanisms for citizen participation.

Many visionary citizens were unclear how to operate from that point. Some went back into old gestures of protest, as if the maximum leader is still there. They are trying to summon villagers to burn the Frankenstein monster. But there is no monster in the tower. The only one in the village is ourselves.

Others had frozen agitation when the government took office, thinking they would enact progressive agendas they magically learned by heart. These groups were caught flat-footed. The public has been in this camp. Waiting.

Part of this is the dependency learned under the maximum leader. People have not realised that, more than ever, their participation is needed. But this public inertia will not last much longer.

The other response has been open engagement for reform within the system, step by step. Two groups are engaged in this in a profound way. Both were central to the citizen resistance and overthrow of the Manning madness. They are the Joint Consultative Council, which includes architects, contractors and engineers; and the artists.

The engagements of these two groups to radically reform their sectors in the last nine months are instructive. Located in the painstaking engagements these groups have had with the State are the seeds of the revolutionary reforms that can transform the landscape.

To be concluded.

Welcome

The Artists Coalition of Trinidad and Tobago (ACTT) is an NGO and a Trade Association led by professional artists who work in their peers’ interest. ACTT currently is in work-group discussions with 20+ national artist representative groups towards formalising the national body. Efforts are on the way to expand this to include all local artist sector representative groups- as well as individual memberships. ACTT represents the formalization of a process to create an umbrella body to represent the artists of Trinidad & Tobago and their interests. This process was facilitated by the Trinidad and Tobago Coalition of Services Industries (TTCSI).

Many traditions are collapsing and under-performing. ACTT has become critically important because of the enormous chasm that exists between the Genius Legacy of T& T Arts & Culture and the systemic marginalizing and under-resourcing of local Artist and creativity by government and the private sector. There remains no connection between normal citizens and T&T’s magical heritage which includes Oscar, Emmy, Tony, Grammy, Nobel Prize, & Commonwealth Book Prize winners, our Golden Age legacy of steelpan calypso, limbo, Carnival and ethnic festivals, and our status as the source of 300 Trini-styled Carnivals globally.