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Why Political Participation Opens the Door to Empowerment: #GETT2020 

By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson

 

Wednesday, August 5, 2020.

 

A living example of what is meant by empowerment through participation in political affairs was clear from watching the three session of the historic Channel Five and Civil Society produced ‘Conversation with Candidates’.

With the announcement of the general election called for 10 August, a problem was identified. That is that the candidates are not selected by the people but are imposed on them by the political parties; or individuals or small parties endure an expensive, bureaucratic process to nominate themselves as independent candidates. Similarly, the electorate isn’t given the opportunity for serious interaction with these candidates. Neither in the immediate run up to the election date, and only rarely with the incumbent during the period between elections.

Engaged Communities

Walkabouts, convoys and motorcades, sound trucks and party political broadcasts are not events engaged in by equals, but divide the protagonists into lecturers and pupils, or entertainers and audience. The people, however, are neither. The electorate are integral to the democratic process, the most important part of it.

To solve the problem, or at least address it, several civil society groups and social movements active in Trinidad and Tobago – Youth Votes Matter TT, Tobago Entrepreneurs, Tobago Writers Guild and Tobago Literacy Support in collaboration with TV station Channel Five [with endorsement from Tobago Youth Council, Environment Tobago, Environmental Research Institute of Charlotteville,  Tobago Jet Ski Association, the Castara Tourism Development Association and Tobago Agricultural Society]- planned for, and achieved a collaboration between media and civil society to produce the live broadcast ‘Conversation with Candidates.’

Participation Crucial

In this way the people the people’s crucial participation in the country’s political affairs has been established as one of equals not followers, passive audience, vote banks or childlike pupils.

The first of three session of the Conversations with Candidates broadcasts went well. Technically it was slick and looked good, the set was engaging and the production entertaining, the social media aspect equally effective with tens of thousands of on-line interactions. The broadcast looked professional and sharp, the moderators were clued up and most importantly all invited candidates turned up – with the exception of Progressive Democratic Patriots Leader and candidate for Tobago East Watson Duke.

The serious questions and comments posted to the Facebook Live feed – and there were also frivolous and hostile and inflammatory ones – are to be recorded and collated and presented to successful candidates elected after the #GETT2020 to the relevant Ministry/Division and with a request that they are addressed more fully to continue the engagement, interaction and liaison between the people and the authorities on an ongoing basis

Local and National Issues

It’s not as if there aren’t matters of a local and national interest for candidates to discuss, especially in a time of Covid-19 Lockdowns and potential second waves. Crime, housing, land tenure, constitutional issues, governance, the status of Tobago, the cost of living, food insecurity, recurrent water and electricity outtages, police violence and impunity, health, education, crime, economic problems, development, apparent financial corruption and austerity measures, environmental issues, cultural and social matters all require local debate and local and national intervention to identify and address the challenges faced by this twin island republic in the covid and post covid world.

An issue for improvement is that the moderators may have been testing the conditions so to speak, testing the wicket… feeling their way around the new initiative and consequently gave the candidates easy deliveries to enable them to play themselves in. Common courtesy is important in the interview process but the moderators also have the obligation to articulate robustly on behalf of the watching, participating and listening audience the concerns, aspirations, issues and topics of interest to Tobagonians as citizens of Trinidad and Tobago.

For future events it is expected that the moderators will bowl bouncers and googlies. Not in order to catch the candidates out or to destabilize them, but to test their skills on this new terrain, at this level of participation where honesty, knowledge and intelligence and preparedness are crucial attributes. As well as exploring their intentions as candidates – and if they are elected as representatives of the west and east consistencies, in this way the candidates views, plans, their evaluation of their role as MP can be scrutinized by the people. This was especially needed for incumbents Ayanna Webster-Roy and Shamfa Cudjoe, both sitting MPs and government Ministers and of – [if he had attended] local politician, Trade Union and Party Leader Watson Duke.

More penetrating questions could have focussed on several important issues.

  • On autonomy – what does it mean for Tobagonians to be autonomous in the unitary state of Trinidad and Tobago and how can autonomy improve an economy comprising public utilities, a private sector and with basic manufacturing alongside retail, tourism, farming and agriculture and provision of social programmes delivering health, education and infrastructure?

  • In addressing Tobago’s economy in general – especially in the light of the Covid 19 crisis – – how can it be improved in order that it can contribute to meeting all the material needs of the people and contribute to same for the Trinidad and Tobago economy and the regional economy as a whole.

  • Millions of citizens of TT, Tobagonians specifically, live abroad – how can their skills, knowledge and expertise o be utilized and tapped into to develop and benefit Tobago and TT?

  • How can the skills, knowledge and expertise of the farmers be drawn on to develop and improve the ability of the farmers to produce enough to feed all Tobagonians and selling surplus to Trinidad and the wider region?

  • In order to address and improve the standard of the island’s utilities, infrastructure and facilities [air and sea bridge] how will you bring the workers into the discussion and rely on their practical skills, knowledge and experience.

  • On health care – drawing on the first hand skills, knowledge and expertise of the health care workers to address and improve the quality and performance of the hospitals and health centres; 

  • Drawing on the knowledge and expertise of education workers to improve education to address the performance of teachers in ordeer to develop and improve tg their literacy and knowledge to enable them to be able to contribute to the society and to participate as leaders of their communities.

  • On the island’s status a [Small Island Developing States [SIDS] identified by the United Nations;

  • How can the spirit, the energy and vigour and the enthusiasm of the people – exemplified by the youth ambition for change – be captured, tapped into and used for the benefit of Tobago and for T and T.

  • About the environment, Protecting the environment, addressing environmental issues,

Important Record

In respect to the thousands of online interactions, and phoned-in comments it has been proposed that youth volunteers be mobilized to assist with the collation, recording and analysis of the questions and comments recorded on the Facebook Live post in order to analyse these, define them and report on them as an important record of the concerns of the people and that the Government Ministries and Tobago House of Assembly Divisions and that the MPs/Ministers responsible for Tobago be instructed to respond.

Such participation will be an early learning exercise on how the political processes work, how the concerns and needs of the people are addressed and who makes and implements the decisions to resolve them. 

After three successful session of the ‘Conversations with Candidates’  the character and personalities of six of the seven candidates have been seen up close and personal, more than can be witnessed via rallies, on sound trucks or via party political broadcasts. The electorate have learned of the candidates’ demeanour, characteristics and personalities, of their plans and policies, as well as their ambitions for Tobago and in the case of Ayanna and Shamfa, an evaluation of their performance as MPs and government Ministers of the past five years.

The main lesson learned is that people’s participation is key. Not only in the media broadcasts but more importantly during the political process itself.


On the Forthcoming General Elections in Tobago

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