In Part I of this series I outlined nine points that I consider need to be addressed in constitutional reform. These are issues that I have discussed more fully in previous articles.
Before I continue listing further points that need consideration I shall discuss some suggested changes with which I do not agree. The first is the proposal that we should have an executive president.
It is my view that some of our major problems have been caused
by the excessive powers of the Prime Minister and some of the amendments that I am outlining in these articles are intended to curb the powers of that post.
"I quote from one of my previous articles: “Why then should we create an executive president whose powers would be much more difficult to control? Is it because we inherited the present system from Britain when we were a colony and therefore must discard everything (good or bad)
from that time? Or is it that we are now so much under the American influence that not only must we be subjected to the violence of that country’s films and television programmes but we must also adopt its political system as well?
“I have heard it argued by one of our political scientists that having an executive president of one political party and a House of Representatives (and Senate) of a different party will help to curb the powers of the former.
But it may also result in a stalemate, as happens in the United
States, where the national budget may not be passed on time and there is a crisis in many a year that threatens to bring the country to a halt! Also if the president and the House of Representatives (and Senate) are of the same party there may then be no control of the powers of the president”.
The political scientist referred to above now sits as a member of the group conducting consultations on the Constitution.
The Express of March 5 reports on an address given by the President of the Senate, Timothy Hamel-Smith, at the launch of the National Consultation on Constitutional Reform. I shall discuss the issues raised in that report.
The Senate President is reported to have stated that the country has “underperformed” since independence and that a new constitution can help to unlock the country’s potential. I do not know if he explained how this could happen in his presentation but I find it very difficult to understand this statement.
He makes a further statement which seems to contradict this as he is further reported to have said: “What we need to develop is the right type of political culture for sustaining the Constitution”.
It has long been my view that our problems arise not from defects in the Constitution but in the way that our leaders act in governance. As I have stated repeatedly, I do not believe that our Constitution is greatly deficient; the deficiencies lie in how we operate it.
So any new constitution we may devise can be subverted by the way we operate it.
The best we can do is to note the ways in which it has been subverted in the past and pass amendments to close the loopholes that have been used to subvert it. If we devise a new Constitution we will then have to operate it for 50 years to see the loopholes that are being used by those whose major motivation is self-interest.
The Senate President further states that: “One avenue through
which the voice of the people can be heard is through membership by citizens in civil society organisations and I would urge us to embody within our Constitution mechanisms through which civil society organisations can participate in making decisions which affect governance in Trinidad and Tobago.”
I can suggest how such a system could be (and most likely would be) subverted. A smart political party would get a number of its members to form various civil society groups: for the preservation of Scarlet Ibis, wetlands, forests, ancient monuments— those are four to start with— which could then give the party’s view under the guise of civil societies.
The Senate President’s proposal is similar to the late Lloyd Best’s large Senate which I have always considered to be unworkable.
The Express editorial of March 5 discusses the launch of the National Consultation on Constitutional Reform and reports on the presentation of Chief Justice Ivor Archie who is reported to have stated “aspects of the existing Constitution are not working”. I agree—so let us identify those aspects, as I have endeavoured to do in my articles over the last 11 years, and which I am endeavouring to summarise in this series of articles.
The Chief Justice calls for “a complete rewrite of the social contract that is to govern the way we and our institutions function”. I am unable to understand what this means without further explanation. I have looked for a full account of these presentations on the website of the Ministry of Legal Affairs website but have been unable to find them.
I shall now continue with the summary of issues that I consider require amendments to the Constitution.
10. Control of Government expenditure.
Of major importance for the long-term well-being of the country is the control of expenditure by Parliament. Whereas Parliament has to
approve an annual budget, governments are able to incur considerable debt, nationally and internationally, without approval of Parliament but the repayment of such debt must be met from the annual budget.
This is also the case with debt incurred by State enterprises.
“Letters of comfort”, which are frequently issued by Government, seldom have approval of Parliament. A ceiling on borrowing is set by Parliament but this is often exceeded and the excess expenditure retroactively approved. All government borrowing should be subject to approval by Parliament and penalties should be imposed for unauthorised over-expenditure.
• EDITOR’S NOTE: Prof Spence died of a heart attack on Wednesday, hours after writing this column