Sunday, February 25, 2018

An imperfect shuffleboard

Reginald Dumas logo16

Mark Fraser

Part II

In her Cabinet reshuffle address, the Prime Minister made a lengthy plea for all parties to work together for the good of the country. If she had her way, she said, she “would form a national government comprised of all groups...”.

 She didn’t want to know how this great “process of collaborative politics” would work, but rather when it would start. (That statement was an excellent example of why we so often fall flat on our faces in this country. We begin a “process” without a plan and when, almost inevitably, the exercise stutters to a halt, we begin another. We should long ago have won the Nobel Prize for Repeated and Pointless Re-invention of the Wheel.)

But in virtually the next breath, the PM rather spoiled her happy, hand-holding vision by exalting the People’s Partnership’s 2010 election slogan, “We will rise”, (which the public long ago identified not so much with the PP as with the United National Congress). The slogan, she said, “still resonate(d) deeply among us”. It is a view to which she is of course entitled, but should she have expressed it in the middle of an appeal for political co-operation? Couldn’t this have been interpreted as politically partisan and, thus, a contradiction of her own argument? Further, how was her call for togetherness enhanced by the simultaneous and largely unheralded introduction of a bill on proportional representation and the wholly unexpected presentation of a 2011 EBC report? How exactly does the PM define “collaboration”? 

I want to believe she means well, but democracy is certainly not about political parties all singing the same melody all the time; in that case, why would you need separate parties? Yes, there should be consultation and co-operation on priority matters of national importance, crime is an obvious one. But what must be avoided at all costs, if we wish to preserve our democracy, is the politics of the uniform and the monolithic. That way lies oligarchy, or autocracy. Let us learn a lesson from India, that raucous, turbulent, thriving democracy. In any case, the immediate reactions of the PNM (People’s National Movement) and ILP (Independent Liberal Party)political leaders have put paid to the PM’s hopes of political inclusiveness.

The PM hinted at future Cabinet chan­ges if ministers didn’t come up to mark. I have lost count of the number of movements and adjustments we’ve had since May 2010. Please, no more. What would be the justification for more any­way if, as the PM has assured us, her current gladiators are “best suited” to the various arenas in which they will be doing battle?

We already had the biggest Cabinet in our history, now, it’s even bigger. It costs the taxpayer a small fortune in salaries and other benefits. To what end? Weightier now, can it “lift off” as the PM assures us it will? What confidence can we place in her triumphalist message that “a new era” has been “usher(ed) in” which will see “the launch of the most aggressive development and progressive period of governance in our nation’s history”? Well, the era might not see, but we will, won’t we.  The paramount consideration is, or should be, the welfare and progress of the nation. I and many others are willing to make whatever contribution we can to that end, but not, I repeat not, within a framework of political jousting and grandstanding, or of attempts to subvert our intellectual independence through offers of remunerative government appointments.

Let me say something now on the proportional representation (PR) issue. I was a member of the 1971/4 Wooding Constitution Com­mission, the majority of whose members recommended the introduction of PR. I was not one of that majority. I wrote a reservation, essentially saying that I didn’t feel able to pronounce myself for or against because I didn’t know enough about the subject; my research was incomplete. I still don’t know too much, but I am now prepared to accept it in principle as being more reflective of voters’ intentions than the first-past-the-post arrange­ment. What form it could or should take in T&T, given the structure of our society, I cannot say. The entire issue should be put before the people of the country, with full explanations, for a decision to be made by them. What the Government is now pushing through Parliament—it will no doubt have been adopted by the time this appears—may have the look of justice and fairness and democracy, but is, in my opinion and not only mine, motivated by the purest political cynicism. Many electors will remember that when their time comes.

Up now pops Prakash Ramadhar to say that the Government is moving towards PR for the next general election. For the time being, I have only two things to say about this. First, Ramadhar is the chairman of a constitution committee that has been having meetings around the country and which, so far as I know, has not yet submitted a report to the people of Trinidad and Tobago. Given that background, should he therefore be pronouncing definitively and publicly on PR or, indeed, any other matter of constitution reform? Could his statement be seen as having irrevocably vitiated a process about which doubts had earlier been voiced by members of the public?

Second, in his dual capacities as constitution committee chairman and Minister of Le­gal Affairs, Ramadhar must surely be aware that the Constitution, the supreme law of the land, makes provision for our system of balloting in the election of persons to the House of Representatives. Section 73(1) reads: “The election of members of the House of Representatives shall be by secret ballot and in accordance with the first-past-the-post system.”

Is Ramadhar proposing so major a constitutional change as PR without fully briefing the population and obtaining its agreement? Or has he persuaded himself that it is perfect­ly allright for his Government to preach “collabo­ration” while vigorously pursuing its own independent path?

• Reginald Dumas is a former ambassador 

and former head of the Public Service