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Constitution reform:the power equation

By Michael Harris

I continue today the discussion I began in my article last week of the issue of constitutional reform. Last week I posed the question as to why we needed constitution reform. My answer was that "a constitution is the blueprint for the governmental, political and social arrangements which define and describe how a country operates. If those arrangements do not work, if the governments do not work, if the politics is in shambles, if the society is in disarray, then you need to re-examine the blueprint".

I went on to assert, however, that such a re-examination cannot begin with the Constitution itself and that what is required at the very start is a clear and detailed analysis of the Government and politics to identify precisely what is not working and why.

I further argued last week the fundamental reason for the persistent shambles and disarray of our Government, politics and society was the fact that we have been trying to run an independent country on the basis of a colonial system of governance and a key feature of that colonial system was that all power and authority resided in the hands of one man, the colonial governor, and the masses of the people were deprived completely of any semblance of power or even access to power.

That statement in fact describes an equation with the power and resources of the executive on the one side and the power and resources of the people on the other. Many commentators have recognised and highlighted the enormous power which resides in the hands of the Executive (and in particular the Prime Minister) under our Constitution.

That recognition has led to numerous suggestions as to how to reduce or constrain such executive power. But it is important to understand that such suggested measures by themselves will not work. For the real problem highlighted by the equation is not the power of the Executive per se, but the power of the Executive relative to that of the people.

The fact is that in any system of government, executive power is always significant and necessarily so if the Executive is to function effectively as the decision-making and implementation agency for the entire society. In a truly democratic system of government, however, such executive power is kept in check and controlled by the existence of significant political, economic and cultural power and resources located in and owned by elements of civil society. In other words in a democratic society, civil society is possessed of resources of countervailing power.

The problem we face in Trinidad and Tobago is that there exists little or no such countervailing power within civil society. In political terms, except for the right to vote in periodic elections and the right (circumscribed) to protest, the people have no resources of power with which to stand up to the Executive. In every aspect of our lives, we have to depend on the favours and goodwill of the Executive to grant us our most basic needs. And if we are not in the good graces of the Executive then crapaud smoke we pipe.

This political dependency is further compounded in our country by the nature of our economy. In our economy the executive does not have to bargain with significant economic owners to acquire the economic resources with which to carry out the functions of government. In our economy the Executive controls the vast majority of the resources and it is our businessmen who, for the most part, have to go cap-in-hand to beg for the resources with which to do business.

Finally, although we supposedly operate a Westminster system of government, we do so without the traditions created by a long history of political and social struggle, which traditions serve as invisible but powerful cultural parameters within which our Executive is forced to operate. In this context, our ethnic diversity further exacerbates the problem by allowing our Executive to manipulate ethnic sensitivities so as to flout with impunity expected mores of good conduct.

Accordingly, therefore, if constitutional reform is to be meaningful and effective, it can only be so by addressing the other side of the power equation by seeking to put in place arrangements and structures which put in the hands of the people the necessary resources of power with which to balance the equation and free civil society from its utter dependency on the executive.

In this context, it must also be acknowledged that the balancing of the equation in the economic and cultural spheres cannot be accomplished merely by constitutional changes and in fact is going to take a long time. Realistically, therefore, the key target of constitutional reform must be in the political sphere and must serve not only to bring about relief from political dependence, but as well compensate for the continued imbalances in the economic and cultural sphere.

If this analysis is correct then it also serves as the critical litmus test for any proposed new constitutional arrangements. For with each proposal advanced we must ask the question: how does this proposal help to redress the imbalance in the power equation between Executive and people, and how does it help to free civil society from its current dependence on the Executive?

In this regard it is important to reiterate that merely introducing measures which purport to reduce or whittle down the powers of the Executive will not suffice. If the power of the people is not directly increased, then the dependence on the Executive remains and the imbalance of the equation is effectively unchanged.

During the February Revolution of 1970, when thousands of our young people took to the streets in protest, their rallying cry was "Power to the People". Today, more than 40 years later, as we go through yet another episode of public consultations on constitutional reform, we might usefully recall that rallying cry and focus our efforts on devising such institutional arrangements which, for the first time in our political history, place real and effective power in the hands of the people.

• Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean.

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