Getting into the system
In these articles I am attempting to illustrate the fact that governance in this country is now paralysed after the nation overthrew the culture of maximum rulership. Through the persistent campaign by my group—the Artists’ Coalition of Trinidad and Tobago (ACTT)—to get an agenda of cultural reform into the budget, I am showing what that paralysis looks like on ground level. A system that has only worked by commands from a singular dictatorial voice since slavery days now has to figure another way to move forward. ACTT’s testing of the system allows us to see the places where reform must happen.
In the last articles I showed how ACTT used the space created by an election campaign to try to get both parties to commit to a plan of reform for the cultural sector. The People’s National Movement refused and the People’s Partnership took the entire agenda and put it in their manifesto. During the election, communication remained open between both parties.
Once the election was over, all communication with politicians disappeared. ACTT tried a series of open and circular gambits to get dialogue, with the aim of getting a sector masterplan into the national budget. Each of these attempts kept getting aborted by the Minister or members of the public service—possibly because some of them were afraid of what those reforms might mean for them.
Many of these people owe their positions to the culture of maximum rulership… It looked as if for the 48th year artistes’ demands would be locked out of the system and the collapse of the great legacy of Trinidad and Tobago arts would continue…
Until Minister Winston Dookeran historically opened up the national budget for public consultation. ACTT leapt into this, ready to engage. The Ministry of Finance immediately confronted us with the truth of the nation’s finances—and requested us to be practical in our demands. We were given formats and training in how to present the demands to technocrats. Although this process can be tweaked, it worked. After about a month, we left our demands with the Ministry. But ACTT did not stop there. We kept pestering the Ministry to get updates as to what would be included.
In weeks that followed, communication broke down between the Finance Ministry and ourselves. We began to worry. Just when we were mobilising again, we got a call that we would have the opportunity to present our demands to the Honourable Prime Minister.
It was minister Dookeran’s initiative again… We presented to the Prime Minister and five Ministers. We carried 14 sector heads with us into that meeting so that the Government would see the faces of the sector. The Prime Minister’s meetings were running late. Our original two hours had been reduced to 15 minutes—she graciously let us present for 45. In the end, we were asked to present a reduced list of demands. ACTT assembled stakeholders and—in a brutal whole-day session—cut out hundreds of millions of dollars of programmes, for a lean wish list.
We arrived too late to meet the Prime Minister and got the list to her constituency office and into the Government’s budget retreat.
But our sector continued to be worried. Yes, Minister Dookeran had opened a way for the sector’s demands to be heard—but we had not succeeded in getting our line Ministry to listen… What would be the outcome? Two weeks later, when the budget was read, almost every single item read out was from ACTT and the stakeholders! It was a revolutionary series of programmes promised to the sector, never before uttered by a standing Minister of Finance—or Culture. ACTT had won promises in a manifesto and now in a budget.
Again we did not wait. We immediately engaged the Ministry of Finance to begin implementation talks. We were the only sector that did this! For three months, we sat with various teams of technocrats within the Ministry of Finance—from Permanent Secretaries to an Implementation Unit. We came up with budgets and month-by-month practical steps to roll out every single promise made in the budget.
During this process it was clear: who were the technocrats who were committed professionals; who were PNM party loyalists who would try to frustrate the process; and who were Partnership people around for the ride. At any point, any one of these people could have derailed the entire process. It took ACTT’s day-by-day vigilance to push the process through to keep the promise alive.
Finally we arrived at a feasible plan for implementation. Then we had to help craft the Cabinet Note. It took three tries to get the perfect note. It then took about six tries to get it to Cabinet! The Cabinet Note itself comprehensively dumbed down the entire implementation programme, and suffered because it would be presented by a technocrat or Minister who had no working knowledge or passion for the projects. We were worried again.
The culture of the Cabinet Note seriously needs to be reformed. From the time the Note went into Cabinet, all communication between us and Government ceased. For six months! Once again our sector was locked out. And not one plan was being implemented.
(To be continued on August 26, the day after my birthday—and I accept gifts… LOL…)