Archive for February 4th, 2011

People power in a democracy

| 04/02/2011 | 21 Comments

There is a lot of unhappiness in this country about government. Many people are affected by the economic situation. Those who are not yet affected are worried by it. Everyone understands that we were hit by the global crisis, but there is also criticism of the previous government, the Financial Secretary, the civil service and the previous Governor. And many believe that the present government’s reaction has made things worse.

Even those who like the sound of some government projects are troubled by the way they get decided, worried by the lack of information, suspicious that self-interest or patronage is involved, upset by the row that inevitably follows in the LA and on the airwaves, doubtful that the projects will come to anything in the end, worried by the true cost and the effect on the cost of living if they do come to something. The Premier tells people not to criticize him but his words have the opposite effect. He has not earned public confidence.

The Opposition is criticized by those who think it plays a part in government decision-making, and by those who feel it should be doing more to push the government in the right direction.

The previous Governor did real harm and made himself very unpopular by his extraordinary interventions. Some suspected a plot hatched in the UK, and some still do.

The Financial Secretary received criticism for changing his tune on the state of government finances. The Attorney General has attracted criticism on several occasions, not least for failing to give effect to the Constitution. Even the Auditor General (previous) got some, though he was only trying to shine a light on government workings.

The civil service as a whole has come in for a sustained barrage of criticism, as have the police.

We, the people, have become dissatisfied, suspicious, critical of everything and everyone in government.

Why is that? Surely it is not just that it is easier now for people to vent publicly.

One explanation is simply that people have good reason to be dissatisfied, suspicious and critical. Perhaps some critics go over the top, some misunderstand the situation, some blame government for things over which it has little control, and some expect too much of ordinary mortals; but there is certainly a lot to criticize.

Another explanation is that the global crisis has given this country a jolt, as has the increase in violent crime. Even those who have not been directly affected are less confident about the country and the future. And when a country is under stress people do become critical. They are worried, afraid. This is what we do when we are worried and afraid. The economic stress should ease as the world economy gets back on its feet, and the effects feed through to our country – though our financial industry does have some other issues as well.

A third explanation is that people feel frustrated, helpless to do anything about all the bad and worrying things that are going on around them. What else can they do except complain and criticize? Elections are 4 years apart, and offer a limited choice. They do not enable voters to say what they want done or changed.

I am writing this article to suggest that we, the people, are not so helpless. We can and should do more.

Some blame politicians for the state of our government. Some blame party politics, or financial backers lurking in the shadows. Some blame the Constitution. The hard truth is that, if anyone is to blame, it is us – we, the people.

I am not just talking about the fact that we elected the politicos who now run our government. I mean that, if we do not like the way our government works, or if we do not think much of our MLAs, it is for us to do something about it. Nobody else will.

Complaining gets us nowhere. It achieves nothing. It may do harm by making others even more cynical and disillusioned about government. We need to act. To act constructively. Few of us can make a difference by ourselves. We have to get together with others who feel the same way.

Together people can achieve a lot more than they can individually.

This is not an original idea. It is as old as democracy. I expect it was said by some ancient Greek thousands of years ago, but my quote is from Edmund Burke, a member of Parliament writing in the 1700s. At that time the best that could be said about English democracy was that other countries did not have democracy at all. Government was a shambles, partly because the king still had a lot of power, partly because many of the politicos were self-seeking and corrupt. Burke wrote “when bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle”.

In every democracy it is up to the people to do what is needed to get the kind of government they want. If people do not like what is going on and want change, they must come together, and take effective action to make it happen. If people do nothing, they are likely to get the government they deserve. Democracy does not work well unless people get involved. It does not work well if people treat it as a spectator sport.

Certainly, democracy is not a guarantee of good efficient government. Many of the worst governments in the world are democratically elected. No constitution, however well written, guarantees good efficient government; there is always scope for power to be exercised well or badly. The UK does not guarantee us good efficient government; and we would not wish them to do so. There would be loud complaints if the UK intervened in any but the most dire circumstances.

The UK does give us personal freedom and increasing democracy, and would give us full democracy (i.e. independence) if we wanted it. The question is what we, the people, are going to do with our democracy. Will we stand on the sidelines and complain, or will we get involved and take responsibility?

When people get together to protect their own industry, they are usually described as a pressure group. We have several of those here, and they are quite effective within their limited spheres of operation. When people get together to protect the interests of their country or their community, they are usually described as a political movement. We do not have so many of them.

The strategy adopted by a political movement to achieve its goals depends on the goals and the circumstances. If it fields candidates for election, it may be described as a political party.

The expression “political party” is also used when politicos get together and share an election platform because they think that will improve their chances of getting power. I do not mean to suggest that politicos who combine in this way are bad guys. I am only pointing out that some parties are made by and for politicos. Other parties, those that embody political movements, have goals that are not simply to get power for certain politicos. The UDP is of the first kind; the PPM is of the second kind.

There have been political parties of the first kind in Cayman for a long time. Since I arrived here in 1974 the first six general elections were won by a “team” (Unity, Dignity, or National). The next election (2000) was not won by a team; and that led to instability, confrontation and public unrest as the MLAs continued to jostle for power, and the country ended up with a leader and a government that few would have chosen. The next general election was won by the PPM team; and the next by the UDP team.

This grouping of candidates before an election into teams (a.k.a. parties) is important for voters, as well as politicos. It enables voters to use their votes to choose their government.

Our form of democracy is based on the UK’s, not surprisingly. In the USA democracy is different. The most obvious difference is that US voters choose not only the district representatives who make up the legislature, but also the chief executive, the President. In the UK and Cayman voters elect district representatives only. It is left to those representatives to choose the chief executive (the Prime Minister or Premier), and he chooses the Cabinet.

On paper the UK system seems less democratic than the US system. Why don’t UK voters choose the Prime Minister? Surely the essence of democracy is that people choose their own government?

The answer is that In practice they do – because there is a party system. UK voters know before a general election whether a candidate belongs to a party, and who will become thePrime Minister if that party wins a majority of the seats in Parliament. So, if a voter wants to use his vote to get the government he thinks would be best (or least awful), he can do so.

Of course a UK voter can, if he wishes, use his vote to get the district representative he thinks would be best, and not worry about who will be the next government. Or, if there is a particular policy issue on which the voter disagrees strongly with the main parties, he may decide to use his vote to support an independent candidate or a member of a smaller party which feels the same way. It is up to the voter to decide which is more important to him – the best available representative, or the best available government, or the policy issue on which he feels strongly. Given the great power of the government to affect the life of everyone in the country, it is not surprising that UK voters seem to show more interest in choosing the government.

Without some sort of party system, UK voters would be disenfranchised. The voter would not know before the election who might turn out to be the front-runners to become Prime Minister; the voter would not know which of these front-runners would be supported by the candidates running for election in the voter’s district. So the voter would have no means of saying who he wanted as Prime Minister. The voter might well discover after the election that his representative had supported a Prime Minister of whom the voter strongly disapproved.

It is just as important in Cayman as in the UK that voters have the opportunity to use their votes to choose their government. That opportunity exists only if candidates make clear before the election who they will join with to make a team, and who they will try to make Premier. Then voters can choose between the rival teams. Otherwise voters are disenfranchised. A candidate who tells voters “leave it to me to choose the Premier” is really saying that his own political ambitions are more important than the views of his community. He is asking voters to give up a democratic right so that he should have freedom of manoeuvre.

Cayman developed a party system years ago. Elections were contested by teams. But some of us have forgotten that; and some have found it in their interests to spread the myth that the party system is new to Cayman, that party politics bring confrontation, and that before the UDP and PPM came on the scene our government was made up of independents who acted according to their individual consciences.

This is a myth. No part of it is true. Members of the old teams stuck together during their term in office, as do members of the new teams, knowing that a split would likely lead to criticism and loss of power. In both cases we may hope that there is or was a limit, that a politico would resign from Cabinet rather than support something of which he strongly disapproved.

The lesson of Cayman’s history is clear: if voters elect a slate of independents rather than a team, as happened in 2000, the MLAs continue to jostle for power, and that leads to instability and the risk of the country getting a leader and a government that few want. It also leads to increased acrimony and confrontation among the MLAs and their supporters. And it leads to a weak government (however strong its rhetoric) incapable of sustained effort because of its internal divisions on matters of policy and priorities.

It is fine to have an independent to help the Opposition keep the winning team on its toes, or to champion some particular cause. But to expect a slate of independents to put together an efficient stable government is unrealistic. As for the idea that independent MLAs who have parlayed themselves into power as the government will then act according to their consciences without influence from their colleagues in government, that is a fairy tale. The government will last only as long as its members can reach compromises with each other.

I am notsuggesting that all parties, or teams, are the same, or that all are good for the country. On the contrary, it is obvious that some parties do great harm.

The most harmful kind of party is the patronage party, in which the goal is to get power, and the understanding is that, if their politicos get power, it will be used to reward supporters. This kind of party is found in most of the truly disastrous democracies. Once a patronage party makes headway in a country, more patronage parties are likely to emerge, as people and politicos get the idea that patronage is the path to power, and the only way for ordinary people to be sure they will be able to put food on the table. This is a slippery slope with blood and ruin at the bottom.

Voters should be cautious about any party or team which is not also a political movement with real goals that go beyond getting power for certain politicos. One reason for caution is that every politico who gets power, however ethical he may be, is confronted now and then by a choice whether to do what is best for the country or what is best for his prospects of re-election. If his colleagues and his support group think power is what matters most, the odds are that the politico will succumb to temptation and make the wrong choice – wrong for the country. Difficult decisions get dodged, left to a future government. If a decision cannot be dodged, the politico flip-flops as he tries to assess the popularity of possible decisions.

Furthermore, going back to the discussion at the beginning of this article, political movements are the way in which ordinary people in a democracy can bring about change. They are a sign of a healthy democracy.

Movements differ, but in a small country such as this a movement can be organised (1) to enable people to get more information, or more reliable information, about what is going on, (2) to provide the opportunity to discuss the situation, and what needs to be done, (3) to turn the views of the movement into action by choosing suitable candidates, agreeing a manifesto, and helping to get them elected, (4) to press the government to deliver what the movement seeks. Of course a movement may wish to add to this list. For example, it may have a programme of community work, harnessing the talents and energies of its members.

As far as I know, the PPM is at present the country’s only active political movement. It came together in the dark days of 2002 and 2003. Its goals were formulated and put into the PPM constitution. We saw all too clearly the kind of government that was bad for the country, and likely to get worse unless people mobilized to stop the rot.

We wanted an end to fear, intimidation, patronage and corruption. We wanted efficient government. We wanted government to be open and accountable, not secretive. We wanted a free press, with access to government information. We wanted a government that would engage in real consultation before making big decisions, a government that would think before acting. We wanted respect for the law. We wanted no petty dictators. We wanted a government that would earn people’s trust. We wanted to encourage people to come together to hear what was going on, and to exchange views freely. We wanted to put limits on what the government of the day could do, especially as regards changing the constitution.

We also had strong views on particular policies, especially that education, training, law and order, and infrastructure had all been neglected. This neglect had damaged the country in several ways, and the damage would get worse if the neglect continued. But we saw the threat to our system of government as a central concern because, if we lost that battle, the country could kiss goodbye to real improvement in any of these other particular fields.

You could sum it up by saying that we wanted a strong, modern democracy with constitutional safeguards. In some countries that view is already so strong and prevalent that there is no need for a political movement to protect it or make it happen. But in Cayman in 2002 and 2003 that view was under attack, and it looked as if the attackers were getting the upper hand.

The country did mobilize. The movement grew huge. A PPM government was elected. It practised what it had preached. And it made good progress in bringing about lasting change, especially with the Freedom of Information Law and the new Constitution. But then came the global crisis and economic problems. With the return of a UDP team to power we see again much of what we fought against, and the UDP government wants to roll back or ignore some of our important changes. The struggle for a strong modern democracy is not over.

In 2011 the challenges facing the country are not all the same as those by which the movement was confronted and energized in 2002 and 2003. Views and priorities are naturally changing as a result. The old PPM principles remain firm but there are new things with which we must grapple collectively.

We are entering a new phase. We have a general election in two years. Not very long for a movement to do what must be done. This is the time, the opportunity, for people to get together, to make up their minds about what the country needs, and to ensure that we get it.

With a new leader (from February 12) to help re-focus and re-energise our efforts, the PPM must be like a sponge, absorbing the views, needs, and ideas of our communities, and drawing in those who will help our effort in one way or another – to stand as candidates, or shoulder some of the work, or help develop solutions, or contribute to discussions. The PPM will develop and change, but I am sure it will not give up its founding principles, because they are still vital and are still under attack.

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Trapped robbers shoot way out of store

| 04/02/2011 | 60 Comments

(CNS): Updated – Three, masked armed gun men shot their way out of a money transfer office on Thursday evening after onlookers tried to foil an armed robbery, police have confirmed . At around 7:30pm on Thursday, 3 February, robbers targeted the Moneygram office at the Meringue Town minimart on Boilers Road in George Town. The robbers reportedly entered the premises (which has been targeted by robbers in the past) with at least one firearm and demanded cash from staff. In the process of the robbery people outside the store reportedly locked the hurricane shutters in an effort to contain the suspects. However, the robbers then shot out the doors in order to make their escape. A police spokesperson said no one was injured but it is not known if the suspects got any cash. (Photos by Dennie Warren Jr)

Police immediately set up road blocks in the wake of the incident which is the seventh armed robbery of 2011 less than five weeks into the year.

All three men were wearing dark clothing and masks  and anyone who was in the area at the time of the incident who has information which could assist the investigation should call George Town CID on 949-4222 or the confidential Crime Stoppers number 800-8477 (TIPS).


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