Why “Town hall” sessions are not a walk in the parkView(s):
A funny thing happened on the way to the forum. I took a walk in the park and found that the civic forum had come to not the market square, but the meandering scene. Or to be more accurate, a relatively novel (for us) forum – the Town Hall Discussion – had come to the park…
Of course, the very reason why I was taking a walk in the park at three-thirty in the afternoon was because social media had alerted me to the event in the first place. Tagged ‘Town Hall Discussion Group’, the new platform for people and their elected representatives to meet, had attracted less attention than it deserved – but it certainly caught my attention; both for its novelty and its potential.
On FB we had been told that a national newspaper, an online media outlet, and other leading media organizations had been backing a small group of civil-society activists to set up such a forum. This Town Hall Discussion Group, we were further told, were seeking to create [a] “mechanism between senior politicians of this country representing all political parties represented in the parliament, and a new group of young and vibrant civil society voices, with the aim of providing a platform and a mechanism to capture and focus a conversation that will keep them constructively engaged”.
The problem was, the politicians – senior or otherwise – did not come. Had they not been invited? Had they (at least the trendy, tech-savvy, technocratic, opinion leaders among them) not seen the open invitation? This one: “If you think you represent the civil society of the country, you are invited!”
For those who came in late, ‘Town Hall Discussion’ (THD) is a method employed around the world in a cross section of demographics to provide a voice for citizens to air their points of view on governance in their respective countries. THDs are intended to be a ‘fair’ (anyone can come), ‘free’ (anyone can speak), and ‘frank forum’ (anyone can say anything). One of its main aims is to “provide a forum where citizens and politicians can meet and discuss, exchange ideas, and follow-up on previous discussions in a peaceful, organized, and democratic manner”.
In a polity where to have an opinion was dangerous just over two months ago, this is a novel idea. In an economy where to have a dissenting opinion was disastrous just over two months ago – and for two terms of an oppressive regime – this is a welcome development.
Town Hall discussions do not have a ‘leader’ nor do they have an organizer. It is a place where policymakers sit together with civil society and share their views with the aim of influencing policy-making process. Also being encouraged: “inclusive and pluralistic dialogue”.
But on the afternoon on which I took my casual stroll in VMD Park there was a leader (let’s call him AK47). There was also an agent provocateur (or, if you prefer, a plant or a stooge: we shall name him DT in honour of the DTs he was once prone to). Also a dissenting voice: a Malingerer with Words. En passant, I encountered not so many of my journalistic colleagues there – if only at a distance; and when up close and personal, only for the briefest of tête-à-têtes.
Part of the problem was (like with the politicos above), the senior journalists had not come. Had they not been invited? Had they (at least the crucial, community-oriented, critically-engaged opinion shapers among them) not seen the open invitation? This one again: “If you think you represent the civil society of the country, you are invited!”
So that’s why I went for a walk in the park on a sunny Monday afternoon. And like some scene in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream or Sherwood Forest’s ‘Merrie Men Meeting’, there they were. These few, these favoured! They met in the park, in the open space between the nuga tree in-between the Open Air Theatre and the Nelum Pokuna Theatre.
Yours truly, for his part, was drawn by clever marketing blurbs such as this: “One person will get less than five minutes to talk at the Town Hall Group Discussion. So the ideas have to be clear and crispy. Interactive and inclusive dialogue will be encouraged.” That got 365 likes on Facebook by Monday evening.
Them civil-society types also know how to present and privilege themselves! And so they are not shy to say that “a few concerned individuals, journalists, civil-society activists, new digital-media writers have gathered together to provide a platform where these civil-society voices can be heard, feedback given, action taken, and they are made part of this continuing change through a Town Hall Discussion mechanism”.
Among the people and groups that had confirmed their participation in the Town Hall Discussion which took place at Viharamahadevi Park from 3.30 p.m. to 6.00 p.m. on Monday, 16th February, were the Free Media Movement, the Young Professionals Association of the United National Party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya, the Frontline Socialist Party. At least, someone came. They, at least, appeared to have heard that “if you think you represent the civil society of the country, you are invited!” Not many other folks heard, or gave ear.
In contrast, the massive rally at Nuremberg – sorry, Nugegoda – was a Nazi – sorry, nasty – one for those who dread traffic-stopping crowds and a resurgence of war-victory talk. One shudders, one does, at what a ‘democratic republic’ tolerates in its public forums.
The organisers of this incarnation of THDs (for, of course, despite their protestations to the contrary there are some figures behind the movement) have seen the writing on the wall and the space in the marketplace and attendant opportunities for media as much as for marketing. They know (or think they do) that “today, there is a demand from civil society to be heard without their message being filtered by the media, especially in a scenario where civil society believes it has contributed substantially to this new political culture”. It is a tempting canvas for any Michelangelo – or Machiavelli – to paint a new picture of a brave new world or emerging democratic republic.