“SOMEBODY a long time ago must have sat down and said: ‘Trinidad will be the land of purgatory. In this land we will create systems which will frustrate and divide people.’ And then they did exactly that.”
This is Philip Franco talking in an interview at his office in Cascade, St Ann’s. Franco is a hard-working owner of his own successful small business and life vocation in the naturopathic and herbal healing sector. He is also a person who has thought a lot about how we run things in TT – or fail to – and how divided, inefficient and unbalanced we are when it comes to, well, virtually anything. He thinks it’s time for a change.
In the best traditions of healthy citizenship, Franco makes the effort to reflect on our society and systems of governance, and suggests alternative ways to go about doing things.
However, he is not what you’d normally think of as an “activist” – indeed, he shies away from the limelight, and has no desire to be a political leader as Trinidadians conventionally think of that role. Rather, he believes we need to rethink what “politics” means, and make it work for the common good.
For him, it means a sense of personal civic awareness of what is going on in your home community, and a willingness to meet with others in your own community to cooperate on matters that affect you. It means electing your own community representative as an independent representative, shorn of any party affiliations, to genuinely represent your interests in a Parliament that is truly representative. And it means that no parliamentary representative ever gets appointed as a minister or any other political or secondary or lateral or dual role, for that would compromise and even negate their ability to fairly represent their own community constituency fairly and well.
In this vision, when an independent representative goes to parliament, they are there to represent the people in their community – that’s it. They are not there to pad votes, toe party lines, or inflate any egos, wallets, or other agendas. They are there to represent their particular community’s views, needs and interests, and to lobby until those interests are met.
And if they don’t successfully do that, then their own community will vote them out and replace them with someone who better represents their interests.
Franco believes in a more participatory democracy in which, for instance, if a community has a particular issue, they meet either in person or using internet technologies, to have group meetings to decide what to do. It is akin to the village council idea, but with technology.
He also thinks that for many routine or even some more important decisions, we could use a system of convenient, easy electronic voting at local community electronic voting stations – something like bank ATMs – or even do online voting at home, once the systems are developed and secured. To log in to community electronic voting stations would require personalised identification plastic cards. That way, a community representative could ask for a quick vote on any issue, and have a real sense of how his constituents feel about it, and act in an informed way to represent them.
It sounds idealistic, and some would say, impossible in a Trinidad where the Licensing Office on Wrightson Road still seems in the dark ages.
But sometimes it’s the idealists among us who can dream of a better way. As the English lyrical poet and philosopher Samuel Coleridge once wrote: “What if you slept? And what if, in your sleep, you dreamed? And what if, in your dream, you went to heaven and plucked a strange and beautiful flower? And what if, when you awake, you had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then?”
Franco’s flower is his own dream of a better organised country where the very system by which people choose to organise themselves lets them cooperate meaningfully, rather than eternally do political combat with each other.
Imagine a monorail public transit system that’s fast and efficient; imagine timely, good enforcement of existing laws; imagine having a say in how things run, not just for one brief moment every five years, but all the time, as a matter of routine, electronic voting on a range of issues affecting you. Imagine a public administration system with proper oversight and efficient, smooth systems for everyday transactions. Those are just some of the things Franco would like to see blossom in his own lifetime.
In a representative democracy (which is what TT has), people vote for representatives who then enact policy initiatives. In direct democracy, people decide on policies without any intermediary. The earliest known direct democracy is said to be Athens in the fifth century BC, although it was not an inclusive democracy: women, foreigners, and slaves were excluded.
Switzerland is a rare example of a country with instruments of direct democracy (at the levels of the municipalities, cantons, and federal state). According to Wikipedia, “Swiss citizens have more power than in a representative democracy. On any political level citizens can propose changes to the constitution (popular initiative), or ask for an optional referendum to be held on any law voted by the federal, cantonal parliament and/or municipal legislative body...Swiss citizens vote regularly on any kind of issue on every political level, such as financial approvals of a school house or the building of a new street, or the change of the policy regarding sexual work, or on constitutional changes, or on the foreign policy of Switzerland, four times a year.”
Direct democracy: Now there is an idea that Franco really likes, and he thinks we should consider a version of it here.
He says: “I don’t want to be a political leader. I’ve been to meetings where people said they are ready to follow a leader. But true leadership is about educating people so that they can rise up for themselves, and be better off. Politics is the involvement of the citizenry in governing their land and their nation. If we are not involved, what can we expect?”
Some of Franco’s beliefs, from his manifesto:
We need an alternative system of governance, because existing systems depend on just the limited ideas of a few elected representatives, who may not have the best ideas, and who may not even be very good at representing their constituents’ interests.
We need a better system of public consultation to exchange ideas, so that we have a larger pool of good ideas to consider. Great ideas can come from ordinary people, we just need to tap into that.
All political parties in TT have failed miserably, because they lead to too much power in one person, the party leader.
All people need to be empowered. We need a “No-Party” system of representatives elected from each community. They must be part of that community, and live there.
Community representatives would represent their community’s interests in Parliament. They would help to make and amend laws, change policies as needed, and solve problems.
No community representative would hold a dual or multiple portfolio, or serve as a government minister. Representing one’s community is a full-time job.
The role of government ministers should be abolished. Instead, skilled, qualified, experienced managers should be hired to manage ministries and state agencies efficiently. Managers should serve on a fixed-term, temporary basis.
Citizen participation requires links between elected parliamentary representatives, local councillors, experts, and the public. This can be done through small, workable community councils, where people can go conveniently, and have organised discussions about problems and needs of the community. You can discuss things remotely, too, using computing and information technology, and social media communications. Concerns that emerge from these group meetings can then be taken up to your community parliamentary representative, who would follow through as needed.
We need a better system of information media networking to enable citizens to be much better informed about problems, possible solutions, and pros and cons of choices. This means citizen TV, radio and websites that are truly fact-based, fair and community-oriented.
After being fully informed of issues, people can then use computerised voting machines to vote for their choice on any issue. It would be like going to your local ATM. You would use a personal ID plastic card to log in. You could have these computerised voting machines set up in convenient locations in your community.