Constitutional reform has been an agenda item for the last two administrations. Further, columnists regularly indicate that the Constitution as it stands is not suited to our current circumstances and does not facilitate our continuing development. Central to these themes are the arguments that the executive has too much power and that there are insufficient checks and balances on executive authority. As a flip side, it is argued that the institutions have failed or are failing.
Michael Harris and Winford James amongst others, make the point that the office of the prime minister’s too powerful and that this is a remnant of the powers of the governor under the Crown Colony system.
But the structures that were created at Independence are reflected in larger measure in other Caribbean territories and indeed in the wider Commonwealth. A review of the wider Commonwealth and indeed the Caribbean region would indicate that there are problems of governance not all related to the constitutional structures.
This is not to say that there are no constitutional issues or that changes should not be made. Even England has altered the structure of the House of Lords several times in the last 100 years and instituted new rules for the Lower House. We have also seen in England the recent expenses scandal which affected all parties; the Speaker of the House had to be pushed to resign, but resign he did even it took a few days for him to come to that conclusion. And those who did not resign were punished at the polls and voted out of office. This scandal clearly indicated that human beings, when given the opportunity, will abuse any system for gain. Indeed, psychologists indicate that all human beings lie and that politicians are no different from the rest of us.
The issue is: how do we ensure that our elected or un-elected officials pay a price for their duplicity?
All institutions are man-made and subject to imperfections. More importantly their operations are subject to human imperfections. Those who would choose a system of more stringent checks and balances need look no further than the budgetary impasse in the US Congress.
Whilst there may be admirable mechanisms and institutions in the US system, it is abundantly clear that the founding fathers distrusted central (federal) government and sought to limit its ability to control the legislative power of individual states. The system of checks and balances built to control the president is dysfunctional. The budget impasse and sequestration amply illustrate this conclusion. This is not the first time that the world’s “leading” country has shot itself in the foot and in the process endangered the world economy.
In our own case, the failures that are routinely highlighted (lack of consultation whilst in office, the failure to communicate) are not a failure of the Constitution per se but a failure of the political process whilst in office. Ultimately all power rests with the individual voter. That voters will exercise their franchise has been ably demonstrated since 1986. What is missing is the active intervention of public opinion to bring office holders to book, and the failure of office holders to set an example.
It would be unthinkable that a minister should continue to remain in office whilst there is strong suspicion of misbehaviour in public office. Recent examples abound. How could a minister remain in office and continue to hold office in a private organisation (say, as a vice president of FIFA) that is not a result of his ministerial duties? How could a minister remain in office whilst he is castigated by various international commissions? Worse, how could his colleagues and his Prime Minister condone this? Surely the right convention would have been to resign voluntarily? And worse, how would a constitution explain how that very individual wins office by a wide margin and forms a political party to contest at the highest level? Surely no constitutional failure can explain that!
Indeed, the widespread dissatisfaction with the performance of our institutions has more to do with the failings of the persons who occupy high positions than the institutions themselves. Our institutions are functioning at minimal levels and routinely under-perform. This is equally true of the public and private sectors; evidence of under-performance, mismanagement or worse abounds. We ought to remember that people make institutions work not the reverse, and institutions and organisations have no memory: people do.
The renaissance that is required is a human one; one where we, individually, take responsibility for human failure and hold our leaders to account and to pay the ultimate price. Minister Cadiz made his reputation by calling for greater responsibility on the part of our elected officials particularly with respect to crime. Yet on the issue of ”falsified qualifications” his sense of moral indignation fails as exemplified by his comment that wrongdoers are sufficiently embarrassed and so there should be no further action.
This is the real measure of our continuing failure; that we are neither prepared to live up to a higher standard or to enforce even minimum standards on each other. No constitution can change this failing.
• Mariano Browne is a former government minister.