Friday, December 15, 2017

Amendments to the Constitution


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Over the last eleven years that I have been writing this column in the Express I have on numerous occasions discussed issues that need to be addressed to improve the functioning of the Constitution. Since it appears that consultations will soon start on Constitutional reform I shall try to pull together the various points that I have made which would affect such reform. I maintain the view that amendments are needed to the Constitution and not a new Constitution. We have completed the learning curve on this one and should by now have learned what we need to amend. To have a new one would involve another 36 years of errors and corrections.

The United States Constitution has undergone 27 amendments since it was created in 1787 (University of Minnesota Human Rights Library website)—the most recent was proposed in 1789 and ratified in 1992! It reads: "No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of representatives shall have intervened". This is a procedure that I have long advocated-that parliamentarians should approve salary increases for themselves but these should not take effect until after the following election-so that they will not be giving themselves increases. The following are some of the amendments that I have proposed in previous articles and which I think are still necessary.

1. Election Tie.

The first amendment that I proposed was in response to the 18-18 tie. If there is an impasse for the election of a Speaker, the President should be given the power to select a Speaker in the same way that he has the power to select a Prime Minister. It is assumed that now that there is an odd number of seats (41) there cannot be a tie. But there may be 20-20 each from two Political parties and one from another party who abstains so that a Speaker cannot be elected.

2. Meetings of Parliament. Parliament should be mandated to meet at more frequent intervals than the current six-month period. Parliament is where the people's business is attended to, and the Government should be required to hold sittings at least once in every month. Thus even the longest vacation break would not be more than about two months (from the first day of one month to the last day of the following month).

3. Size of the Cabinet. A Cabinet of no more the 15 persons could adequately manage the affairs of a country as small as this one. The present problem arises from the fact that our politicians have the mistaken notion that they must manage ministries. The public servants are the managers and politicians should prescribe policy and the Constitution should state this. Unfortunately our politicians try to be managers and set up committees (after they are elected) to devise policies! The political parties do not formulate detailed policies which they can persuade the electors to accept and vote them into office but instead rely on ethnic voting and on accusing the opposing party of all manner of wrong doing.

If the Cabinet were limited to 15 then there would be at least 6 backbenchers on the Government side even if there were a majority of one (that is, a 21-20 election result). Also the 15 ministries should be each of fixed subject matter (as in the United States) and change should only be possible through a special majority in Parliament. If ministers are still to be appointed from the Senate then it would be possible to appoint thirteen from the Senators as in our present Constitution only the Attorney General and the Prime Minister must come from the House-but this but this would be contingent on creation of a post of Deputy Prime Minister (see 4 below).

4. Deputy Prime Minister. A position of Deputy Prime Minister, who would act as Prime Minister, should be created and the member of the House of Representatives filling this position should be elected by the members of the House belonging to the majority party. The Deputy Prime Minister should hold at least one Ministerial portfolio.

5. Full-time Members of

Parliament. Members of Parliament should be full-time and should receive the same salaries as ministers, and the latter should receive a responsibility allowance so that being removed as a minister by the Prime Minister would create no hardship.

6. Local Government.

Local government should be empowered by act of Parliament, as is the Tobago House of Assembly, to perform many of the functions now carried out by the central government. There should be community councils (as discussed in one of my recent articles) which, unlike the present situation of village councils, should be a formal part of the system of Local Government. There should be an act stating a formula for financing of local government (as with the Tobago House of Assembly) that should be alterable only by Parliament.

7. Removal of Senators. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition should not have the power to remove Senators. Removal should only be possible by Government or Opposition members of the House of Representatives respectively.

8. The Calling of Elections. Elections should be held five (or four might be considered) years after the dissolution of the previous Parliament, except in the case of a successful motion of "no confidence" in the Government.

9. Parliamentary Committees. There should be a requirement for parliamentary committees to meet at regular intervals and there the quorum for meetings should be reduced to two so that each political party will insist that their members attend.

Some of above proposals are intended to reduce the power of the Prime Minister (4, 5, 7 and 8) and some to enhance the power of Parliament (2 and 9) and of local government.

To be continued.

— John Spence is professor

emeritus, UWI. He also served as an independent senator.