Saturday, December 16, 2017

Constitution Bill needs more scrutiny

 I got up this morning (Thursday, August 7) to the sound of my name jumping up in what sounded like somebody putting down a scolding on children who had committed some naughtiness. 

It was the Hon Attorney-General defending the electoral run-off proposal that many intelligent and aware citizens have now analysed more thoroughly than I did as a member of the Constitutional Reform Commission (CRC). 

Citizens are finding this proposal to be potentially destructive of democracy, and as a citizen myself, benefitting from their wisdom, I have to say that I agree with that analysis.

Yet, as part of the group that held consultations and then presented proposals for constitution reform, I do take responsibility for the whole package (not just this selective Bill) to which I gave my consent. 

On a point of accuracy, the right of recall did not crop up belatedly in the follow-up consultations as claimed by the AG. Recall was there from the beginning. It featured in the Partnership’s manifesto (page 15), in the main consultations around the country, and in the CRC’s report (page 23). The run-off proposal was in none of the above.

A run-off ballot is a mechanism, not a principle. The CRC agreed, in the first instance, to a set of principles. Not every detail regarding how to implement these principles would have been worked out by members of the CRC; nor would these details have come, necessarily, from members of the public who participated in the consultation process. But the CRC signed off on the whole package—principles as well as implementation methodology. Therefore we have to take responsibility.

That, for me, does not mean defending tooth and nail an idea that, on deeper thought, turns out to be anti-democratic and a source of worry to citizens. 

I can see now that the run-off mechanism directly contradicts the principle of proportional representation which is a central recommendation of the CRC (chapter 5 of the CRC’s report). 

What the current discussion proves is that before it is taken to the final stage, the Parliament, this Bill needs more and deeper scrutiny by the public, nationwide, over a longer period than one week. 

It is unfortunate that a member of Government should seek to put a damper on public discussion by calling it “hysteria”. This is our country’s Constitution that we are about to change!

As a member of the CRC I bear no responsibility for the timetable that has been set for taking this Bill to Parliament. 

As a citizen I register here my dismay at what seems like an episode of legislative railroading set to happen next week. 

The country needs a decent period for discussion on the Bill, and for the return of parliamentarians who are predictably absent, this being a customary time of vacation. 

The fact of having held consultations cannot be used to defend the specific provisions of this Bill. The consultations were sessions of listening to the views of citizens. That was a forum for the gathering of ideas, for hearing as many voices as possible in the time available, not for the thrashing out of any specific idea. 

There was absolutely no focussed public discussion, in that forum, on the items selected for inclusion in the Constitution Amendment Bill, 2014. This needs to happen. I add my voice, as a citizen, to the call for postponement of the parliamentary debate.

The larger package presented by the CRC contains proposals that are constructive and far-reaching in their potential to improve governance. But these reforms are all located in the upper regions of our governance structure–Parliament, Prime Minister, President, Judiciary. ... Once again the ordinary citizen has not been properly served in the constitution reform process.

I have already made known to my colleagues on the CRC my disappointment at our failure to propose anything that increases the direct input of ordinary citizens into decision-making. We have proposed no structures or mechanisms to achieve this. 

The only permanent structure that people have for channelling their views upwards to the political leadership, in the hope of influencing their decisions and their behaviour, is the media. 

Popular participation in the democratic process has not been expanded one jot beyond periodically staining the tip of one of our fingers. “More power to the people”? I don’t think so.

The author, a retired UWI lecturer, is a 

citizen of Trinidad and Tobago