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.

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Posted on July 15, 2011, in President's Blog. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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