Monday, February 19, 2018

A dog’s dinner

 Senator Vieira was brilliant. Senator Drayton was cogent and passionate. Senator Roach I hear was also compelling. How Senator Balgobin voted is not the point, though he may have been piqued by lobbyists into asserting his immunity from influence. But it was Senator Vieira who gave some glimmer of hope that all may not be lost for the country, given the poverty of its leadership.  

Senator Vieira made four key points.  First, process is vitally important. How we get to the right answer is as important as the answer itself. Teachers fail students who ratch their answers or plagiarise material.  Courts have procedural law which sometimes trumps substantive law. The process by which the amendments were brought was flawed. On that score alone they should not have been brought.  Second, he argued that the case for the term limit for prime ministers had drawbacks, but he was prepared to give that a bligh. Third, the recall proposal was fraught with problems and he saw it as the most troublesome of the three.  No reasons need be given for a recall; the difficulties of judging performance; and most importantly, was the MP a mere delegate or was he a trustee for his constituents? The recall proposal had been shelved in the UK and it was about to be litigated in British Columbia.  Fourth, the run-off could create more problems than it solved.

What is disturbing is that the Senate purported to debate amendments to the Constitution, the fundamental law of the land, the statutory expression of our social contract, without the report of the Commission being laid in Parliament, with an “addendum” developed following four additional “consultations”, inexplicably thought necessary after the commission had already reported, and against the background of the dissent by Winston Dookeran and Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan in the Lower House.

But there was another aspect of process which was flawed. All the senators had to resort to the vast but variable resources of the Internet to research these issues, an approach that might be adequate for dangerous dogs legislation, but not for amending the Constitution.  Senators quoted a variety of authorities or sources.  But shouldn’t we have had the benefit of research undertaken by the Constitution Commission, combing and validating the sources, assembling and analysing the data and presented to us all as a white paper?  Shouldn’t we have had, as Reginald Dumas suggested, the views of UN experts on electoral systems?  Wouldn’t it have been more productive for MPs to debate from a common core set of data and ideas documenting the pros and cons of the proposals, to which they could then add and weigh their own research?  Despite the heat of the expenses scandal, the UK parliament spent two years studying recall and has now shelved it!

The outcome—a run-off proposal which is far worse and less sensible than the original bad run-off proposal—arose from the deficiency of analysis. Even though we used to speak patois here, the relevance of the French model to our political culture is at best tenuous.  We have no “Right’’ or “Left’’ here; no acknowledged socialists or social democrats; no Green Party; no special interest groups seeking to align themselves with major parties on the left or right in order to have their agendas incorporated in policy.

 As Senator Vieira pointed out, in some francophone countries employing the run-off, it had led to violence and civil war! So the amended amendment, in allowing three or more parties to run in the supplemental election, may lead to another inconclusive outcome and not deliver the “majority MP” that was supposed to emerge.  That this abrogated the so-called “majority MP” principle which allegedly prompted the amendment was, somehow, no longer important.

So how did we get here?  We have, as Lloyd Best had said, an unresponsible elite—people in positions of power and authority who do not know what they do not know, who come to believe that a few days spent “googling” gives them sufficient command of a subject that they dare to change the fundamental law of the land on the basis of that research and without the benefit of consulting real experts.  Senator Vieira and five other Independent senators felt they did not know enough to be persuaded to support the proposals. 

And while we fiddle, critical issues smoulder and burn—the retention of the Privy Council, the ineffectual service commissions and the Salaries Review Commission, the system of elections, and the death penalty—issues largely ignored by the Ramadhar Commission and unlikely to be raised by the man on the Priority Bus Route on his own.  It is why the Wooding Commission abandoned its early consultations and produced thinking things through, so that ordinary citizens could first understand the issues and then express an opinion.

True, the debate galvanised public interest and passion on constitution reform.  But it also exposed the weaknesses of an unresponsible elite who have served up a dog’s dinner for constitutional reform.