Friday, January 19, 2018

Reject that report, Prime Minister

Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, I have just read a most dangerous report, so unbelievably dangerous in fact that I am wondering if I did read what my memory tells me I did. I will read it again and again—especially the critical parts—but I am sure my first impression of extreme danger won’t go away. I am talking about the report of the Ramadhar-headed Constitution Reform Commission (CRM), which is now publicly available. I urge you to reject it, even though you would be slapping a political partner in the face.

There are at least three reasons why you should. It makes recommendations that are not based on any finding from data analysis. It is clueless about what the real governance problem is in Trinidad and Tobago. And it paves the way for secession of Tobago from the union or, if you prefer, for Trinidad’s independence from Tobago.

Here is a report, Prime Minister, that is ostensibly the product of the CRM’s consultations with the people, but it reads, not like a report of what was found, but like a recipe of recommendations from the commissioners’ minds for reforming the Constitution based on their interpretation of the views they heard and, clearly, their own ideological biases. The modus operandi of the CRM is to present opposing views from the public on particular issues, discuss those issues by reference to United Nations positions, practice in selected countries and ideological positions from the commissioners (notably Hamid Ghany), and offer recommendations.

But consider, Prime Minister, some of the deficiencies in that approach. The report does not provide us with the mandate of CRM; the closest we get to a sense of what that might be is the quotation of a promise from the manifesto of the People’s Partnership: “We will establish a Constitution Commission to engage in the widest possible consultation as a prerequisite to constitutional reform.’’ I will assume a mandate exists, Prime Minister, but how do you get a report that does not refer to this mandate? Is the lack of a clear mandate the reason why you do not have a report that has i) appendices or annexes of exemplars of the data used for analysis and recommendations; ii) the procedure used to analyse the data; iii) findings from the analysis; and iv) recommendations based on such findings?

To me, this looks irresponsible and calls into question the credibility and trustworthiness of the recommendations, but I suppose this is what you get when things are not done properly.

The second reason, Prime Minister, far more serious than the first, is that, from its recommendations, the CRM is clueless about what our fundamental governance problem is and, consequently, about how to fix it. This is astounding. The report in essence recommends a hybrid system of elements from Westminster and American presidentialism, aimed inter alia at reducing presidential discretion in the appointment of a prime minister in the case of a tie, equalising the powers of the lower and upper houses, separating the legislature from the executive, enshrining proportional representation by the Hare method (Google it!), and giving the voter two votes rather than one.

But what fundamental government problem would that fix, Prime Minister? You would think that in recommending constitutional reforms—even in the absence of links to data-based findings—the CRM would have referred to the present Constitution, shown where it is deficient, proposed the reform, and justified it. Relevant clause by relevant clause. But nowhere in the entire report is that done!

For example, what problem/ clause in the current Constitution would the proposed numeric equivalence of the House of Representatives and the Senate fix? And how would it fix it, Prime Minister?

Prime Minister, years of reading the political literature, reflecting and writing on our political condition, and, in particular, sitting at Lloyd Best’s feet has taught me that the real governance problem, not identified and/or developed anywhere in the report, is that the citizenry are not involved in, far less in charge of, the governance process before and after they vote. Put another way, the Parliament is not structured to either put the citizenry in charge of the legislative process or to constrain offensive executive action in their interest. What the citizenry have is a vote and, if you like, a mouth to rant and rave with. The organs of government are designed to keep them out and to concentrate power in the hands of president, prime minister, and legislature. As you said in your first anniversary address as prime minister, you and your appointees are the leaders and the citizens are followers…

In their report, the CRM keeps the citizens as mere voters. The latter now have two votes—one to elect MPs with, the other to elect senators—but same difference: their only real role is to vote, nothing else. Astounding!

There is no appreciation, Prime Minister, of the need of the citizenry to be in charge of governing themselves. There is no appreciation of the need of the citizenry to control the lower and upper houses. There is some appreciation of the need for MPs to look after the interests of their constituencies, but because of the potential for fractiousness and disruptiveness of the MP role there is a need for the Senate to be designed as a unifying body, but there is no appreciation of a senate in this role or of people empowerment mechanisms—e.g., hearings, plebiscites —in this regard.

How could such a distinguished sample of our highly schooled minds so completely miss the point? Eh, Prime Minister?

Our final stated reason, perhaps the most serious of them all, is that the report would pave the way for the breakup of the union. But alas, I have run out of space. Suffice it to say that this is a report about Constitution reform for the nation of T&T, but, incredibly, it sets Tobago apart or treats it as being peripheral, mentioning it only in a brief section of the chapter on reform of the public service, on the silly pretext that “the mandate of the Commission (which mandate?) did not extend to the Tobago House of Assembly Act 1996 and so this did not form part of the consideration of the Commission.’’

You are seeking to reform the Constitution of the country, yet you leave a half of it out of consideration!!!

Can you believe it, Prime Minister?

Commissioner Dillon, what were you doing there?

• Winford James is a UWI lecturer and political analyst