R. Rose - Eye of the Needle
December 6, 2019
Local Government and electoral reform: Can Christian Coalition play a role?

Late last month the Kingstown Town Board (KTB) organized activities to celebrate its 122nd anniversary. It was an initiative worthy of applause, but largely not given high visibility by the local media except for the coverage of Works and Transport Minister Julian Francis’ plans for the long-promised “clean-up” of Kingstown.

Perhaps the low-key media interest can be understood by its surprise at the KTB’s move. I have been around for more than the proverbial “three score and ten” years, and I can’t recall any such anniversary activities by the KTB (nor any other local government body), not even in its heyday. So I looked for some information on the KTB’s origin and in the famous St. Vincent handbook, learnt that the first election for the KTB was held on December 14, 1897. That was almost 54 years before there was Adult Suffrage here, so those elections were constrained by the fact that there were qualifications mostly based on property ownership.

It meant that the vast majority of the persons who would normally vote today were denied the vote then. The propertied class voted and elected four persons, one of whom, J.G.W. Hazell was elected Chairman at the first meeting of the Board on Wednesday, December 29, 1897.

With the introduction of Adult Suffrage and particularly party politics, the KTB and other local government bodies were used by the parties and political aspirants as a breeding ground for future politicians. Elections at the local level were fought fiercely on party lines and partisan rivalries dominated. In the KTB itself there were even physical clashes between the Labour Party and PPP aspirants. There was often deadlock between the central government and local government.

The Mitchell/Joshua administration of 1972-74 reacted to this situation by abolishing local government. Government-appointed party hacks were appointed with the grand name of “Commissioners”.

Nearly half a century later, the citizens of Kingstown and the rest of SVG still have no say in choosing who must run their affairs at a local level. We can vote for our representatives at the national level, but at the local level it is a system of government appointees and employees which rules the roost.

Under both NDP and ULP there have been stillborn attempts to revive local government, all to no avail. We have not even had the courtesy of the publication of the findings of the respective Committees and Commissions set up for that purpose. Yet the issue is a fundamental one for the exercise of our democracy, for how can it flourish without local, community roots, that is, local government? We have tolerated it so long that it has become accepted that WE HAVE NO REPRESENTATION AT LOCAL GOVERNMENT LEVEL.

Local government part of political reform

The weaknesses in our political democracy need to be addressed lest they continue to fester and erupt as they occasionally do at election time. There were many positive proposals put forward in the ambitious constitution which we rejected in the 2009 referendum. We seem afraid to revisit them following that harrowing experience, yet we must, for our own sake, for the sake of our democracy, and above all for the sake of peace, security and public order.

The current experiences in Dominica tell us that an important element of that reform must be electoral reform. On the eve of elections there, not only are there rowdy protests but there are petitions and even court cases seeking the postponement of elections pending electoral reform.

SVG itself has unresolved cases challenging the result of the 2015 elections even as we prepare for the next joust at the polls. Unrest and political dissatisfaction followed the elections of 1998, 2010 and 2015, to differing degrees. But we have still not addressed the root of the problem. Proposals for change in the draft 2009 Constitution were opposed by the NDP, which must now feel shame-faced to advance them now. And the governing ULP must be saying, “well , we put forward proposals but they rejected them”.

We cannot go on like this; someone has to bell the cat. Dominica again highlights the dangers of campaign-financing and how “who pays the piper calls the tune”. Funding for expensive campaigns must be paid for after elections, often to the detriment of the national interests. We need to address this and related issues before we get into the dog-fight. It is not only the result of elections that counts, the manner in which they are conducted are of equal or even greater magnitude.

Our civil society movement is not as united, strong or politically active as it used to be. Is it too much to ask the Christian Coalition to exhibit the same level of exuberance and commitment it displays on the buggery issue, in taking up the cause of our electoral reform, peace and goodwill?

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.