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)

Posted on July 29, 2011, in President's Blog. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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