Letters & Opinion

It’s The Debates, Stupid!

By Clement Wulf-Soulage
By Clement Wulf-Soulage

The private sector, civil society and the media have all called for it. It is, no doubt, a vital component of good governance and – as progressive and stable economies around the world will attest – the lifeblood of participatory democracies. While there is no shortage of issues confronting candidates here on the brink of a general election, there is only a shortage of insightful and substantive political DEBATE on subject matters ranging from the economy, health care and infrastructure – to foreign policy, judicial reform and national security. And if indeed political representation is about transparency, accountability and public scrutiny, why aren’t such debates happening?

The fault, I can assure you dear compatriots, is not in our stars, but in ourselves – not that we are necessarily underlings; it’s just that our expectations are low and malleable.

So how much have we truly evolved since independence in 1979. Economically? Reasonably well! Politically? Well umm, not so much! And the reason is not so farfetched: For aspiring candidates and politicians, we might have – to our own detriment – made the requirements for political office much too easy and the performance bar set much too low for far too long. Lamentably, it appears we haven’t treated politics as the serious business that it really ought to be. If would-be office-holders knew they had to face serious fact-checking investigative journalists and participate regularly in formal policy debates, perhaps we would attract better-qualified candidates rather than some of the pitifully mediocre ones that we have elected over the years.

For too long, we have allowed aspiring candidates to deflect and obfuscate – hiding behind group-think structures, party colours and lately, social media. We have allowed them to delight crowds with their antics – making all sorts of vitriolic assertions and false allegations from their comfort zones and impregnable fortresses (mostly political platforms, election rallies and talk shows) instead of demanding that they face off in formal public debates both at the local and national levels to enunciate and defend their platforms.

These are serious times – and we need to open our minds to new opinions and impressions of candidates and learn more about their character and backgrounds, regardless of party affiliation. The free passes to political power without proof of professional competence and personal integrity should become a thing of the past. It’s time we find a way (or make a way) to get past the silly insults, slogans, symbols and colours, and engage in constructive dialogue that will help to better evaluate the people who profess to know our needs and who wish to represent our collective voice in the nation’s highest democratic institution.

Since politicians pass laws and make crucial decisions about the economy and society, I’m always surprised that relatively little attention is focussed on examining closely whether they’ve got the requisite skills and personal attributes to handle challenging projects and fiscal matters, or to produce innovative ideas, plans and initiatives to solve community and national problems. The spectre of poor representation and economic underdevelopment should puncture any complacency about the primacy of politics and the perils of taking democracy for granted.

Clearly, the old election campaign model needs to be recharged, and rather than shine like a beacon of hope, it winks like a battery-drained flashlight. If you followed the tonal trajectory of the last few election rallies and public meetings, you would probably view the next few months of political campaigning with a sense of foreboding. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that civil society and the private sector have grown tired of the surfeit of pageantry and absence of substance that platform politics seems to incite. Thus, it’s worth repeating that we have to start to reinvent our political and civic life, and reinvigorate our democracy.

Why can’t we use regular political debates to force transparency, accountability and maturity in the electoral process? The nation is crying for an opportunity to hear productive exchanges which will provide the capacity to deliver intelligent analysis of economic trends and business activities. Why aren’t the political leaders of all three parties going head-to-head in national debates? Given the constant campaign bloviations and political allegations going around, such a productive exercise would surely provide an opportunity to expose empty bromides and platitudes, and challenge misrepresentations and false equivalences on the spot. Further, it may even have the effect of elevating the status of third-party and independent candidates – an important electoral element in our democracy which has largely been ignored and demoralized.

Town hall meetings alone will not cut it. Televised debate – the kind that enriches and enlightens the cultural and political path of a nation – must become a regular fixture of Saint Lucian election races, if we are to truly evolve as a people. I am convinced that given the depths to which politics have sunk (not only in Saint Lucia but in the wider Caribbean) the institutionalized display of civility that organized debates represent can make a difference. The sight of more civil exchanges and handshakes, as well as competing candidates sharing the same stage – attempting to sell their respective visions to the electorate – would be a welcome development.

What is more, televised debates have the potential to open up the political landscape to the electorate, offering them an opportunity to judge the candidates and their ideas without having to trawl through manifestos (on that score, I sincerely commend Dr. Ernest Hilaire for taking the first step and agreeing to participate in such an exercise). Apropos of manifestos, if political campaigning has already started, why aren’t the policy proposals already out there in the public domain? How is any meaningful debate supposed to take place without first knowing the competing visions of the political contenders? We all need a direction to begin, right?

Coming Soon: Conscience Of A Progressive (My New Book)

For comments, write to ClementSoulage@hotmail.de – Clement Wulf-Soulage is a Management Economist, Published Author and Former University Lecturer.

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