The main highlight of this week was the new Government Programme for 2012-2015. It was delivered over more than 2 hours in a welcoming sober tone by the Acting President of the Republic, Ms Monique Oshan-Bellepeau.
A good part of the programme formed part of what has been said before but there were new elements as well. Inasmuch as what comes from the past is concerned, it is clear that the country takes time to meet milestones which have been set before except that it does nobody any harm to emphasize that they need to be seen through in the near future. Certain matters brook no delay.
We can pick up a couple of the new ideas that the Programme throws up.
A Strategic Vision
One of them has to do with our preparedness for future action, in a sort of exercise to strategize future development. For quite some time now, short term economic and social objectives have gained priority over everything else in the public debate in Mauritius. It is fair enough to balance books and meet rules of thumb set out by international standard setters concerning areas such as public finance, the public debt, etc. These are based on short term considerations of being compliant with so-called sacrosanct rules of behaviour in public finances. Vision is something higher.
No grand schemes have been thrown up since Vision 2020 was conceptualized many years ago. It was therefore correct for the Government Programme to draw indirect attention to this lacuna in terms of deep thinking towards economic and social development. This fact is brought out by the reference to the putting in place of a National Transformation Strategic Commission to consider our way forward in perspective.
It must be admitted that one is not looking forward to hard and fast five-year input-output plans to be laid down from which policy makers should not depart. There has to be a vision forward. It may get adapted in the light of dynamic changes operating on a globalised market place, the more so as we do not operate in the context of a self-sufficient closed economy. We need the framework along which to proceed to hit specific targets in future.
Other advanced countries proceed along well defined strategic development paths which are periodically adapted or rectified but at least they know what they are headed for. The risk of not proceeding along a defined path is that ad hoc decisions are frequently resorted to, resulting in all sorts of duplication and even waste of resources to set right what ought not to have gone wrong had a dose of foresight been fed into the equation.
Let us take the case of public transport. The program referred to the installation of a light railway system. True it is that this is, like all government programmes including the Ocean Economy to which reference was also made, a declaration of intent and that its implementation is not for the Ag President to outline. However, since the years politicians have been speaking about it without doing anything, hundreds of thousands private transport vehicles, including used ones, have made their way to our roads. Countries which have thought out about the future have exacted that such imports will not be allowed unless they meet certain set down standards of fuel efficiency. Why? There are heavy costs associated with them and it is the country that bears them eventually. An efficient public transport system implemented well in time would have avoided enormous waste of resources by cutting down well in time the traffic density on our roads. It boils down to conceptualising well in advance and making choices available to the public to avoid unnecessary waste.
Even if the thinking forward part can be tackled, there will still be problems on the implementation side. Good planning would have called for some very high calibre implementers with proven track record to be in charge. Do we have them? Evidently not, since the evidence shows that many programmes have been lagging behind. It was imperative therefore to introduce a line or two in the Programme as to how the capacity of the Civil Service to deliver was going to be addressed. Short of filling this gap with home-grown capacity, the best wrought out plans will be dashed down to the usual limping pace. We would have been happier if there had been a keen reference to go for capacity building in the service.
* * *
A System of Referendum
The other important issue mentioned in the Government Programme pertains to recourse to be had to referendums when taking decisions on matters of public importance. This is a subject which deserves serious attention. We have yet to sort out whether there are already provisions or whether amendments will have to be made to the Constitution to accommodate organizing referendums on important issues.
The subject is important for various reasons. First, there are many self-appointed opinion-makers in Mauritius who are too keen to plant their views as if they had the tacit approval of the public. Second, when discussions were being held recently with political parties on electoral reform, it was assumed that whatever arrangements politicians would come to among themselves would be acceptable to the public. That might even have included an assumption that the public would have no say if the chief political protagonists would, by virtue of the number of votes they command in the Assembly, have reached a power-sharing agreement between the President and the Prime Minister. Third, NGOs and religious organisations ventilate their institutional or personal views as if they had the imprimatur of the majority of the population when such was never the case.
Inroads of this sort act like monopolising public opinion in few hands so that the public effectively has no direct say in matters of its concern. A system of referendum to deal with all issues of public importance will undoubtedly add to the country’s democratic setup which has been coming under different threats in this age of aggressive communication. The risk that the voice of the public can be hijacked has become a reality and a permanent threat.
On the other hand, the machinery of state risks becoming clogged down if each and every other decision is put up for the public to decide thereon by organising referendums. A balance must be struck as to which are the kinds of issues which will require public consultation instead of leaving those decisions open-ended or to be made solely by politicians in power, acting in connivance with their accomplices in the media to twist public opinion. For the present, we have safeguarding institutions like the Supreme Court but they may not have locus standi when it comes to purely political choices. The referendum system can contribute significantly to avoid diverting our democratic rights to irresponsible decision-makers under the sway of short term advantages to be gained by them. We should be careful however to define parameters within which citizens would have a right to be consulted from time to time.
* Published in print edition on 20 April 2012