The Government has at long last embarked on a public consultation on constitutional reform. Notwithstanding the length of time it has taken for the Government to reach this point, Minister Prakash Ramadhar has stated that there is no draft constitution on the table since the Government does not wish to preempt the fullest range of discussion.
While the absence of a draft document does lead to the question of why it took so long to open the discussion on constitutional reform, Minister Ramadhar is correct in not bringing forward, as the focus of the consultations, a Government-sponsored draft. Where the Minister has erred is in not bringing forward to the consultations a position paper which lays out why the Government considers that constitution reform may be necessary.
Such a paper would have gone a long way towards focusing the discussion on the core problems faced by our society, out of which might have emerged a clearer understanding of the kind of institutional restructuring necessary given our specific history, culture and circumstances.
In the absence of such a seed paper, the consultations which, like so many other consultations before, are yet to create any real political excitement in the population, are reduced to individuals signalling their preference for items as if they were at a buffet table. So for some people, term limits for the Prime Minister looks good so they put it on their plate, for others, the right of recall and the introduction of referenda smell appealing so they put them on their plate. In the end what we end up with is a smorgasbord of constitutional arrangements, borrowed from all over the world, without coherence, relevance or reason.
The first question we need to ask ourselves is why do we need constitutional reform? 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.
But such re-examination and reassessment does not start with the constitution. What is first required is a clear and detailed analysis of the government and politics to identify precisely what is not working and why? If anyone believes that our governments and our politics are working just fine then such persons should have no interest in constitutional reform. If it is not broke there is nothing to fix.
I would hazard a guess, however, that there are very few persons like that among the population. Most of us understand and agree that our country is beset by serious problems which simply do not go away; whether our concern is crime or corruption; whether we are concerned about the state of our education system or our health system; or whether we are fed up with the lack of water or the lack of proper drainage or roads, most of us acknowledge that we have simply been unable to deal with these problems.
So when we are faced with the same recurring problems, when nothing that we do makes a difference, then we have to come to the realisation and accept that what we face is a systemic problem; that the problems do not go away because they are the symptoms of a far more fundamental and deep-seated problem. Simply put, the blueprint is flawed. And that is why we need constitutional reform.
But what kind of reform? What specific changes do we need to make to the blueprint to fix the specific problems which beset us year after year? How does constitutional reform help us to fix our roads, our education system, or our health system?
It is in response to these specific questions that I would assert that the social and economic problems of a country, under conditions of independence, cannot be solved by any government no matter how honourable its intentions or how much money it has, without the active trust, support and involvement of the vast majority of the people.
The simple reason for this is that all such problems are problems which concern and affect people. And if they have no voice in what is proposed to be done to them, or for them, they can never come to trust and support such solutions. And here is the crucial link between constitutional reform and solving our day-to-day problems.
For our blueprint, our Constitution makes little or no provision for the involvement and participation of our people in the decisions which affect our lives. The structures and institutions of government and state which we have today have come to us almost intact from the days of our colonial past.
A central feature of the system of government and administration which operated under colonial conditions was that all power and authority resided in the hands of one man, the colonial governor, and that the masses of the people were deprived completely of any semblance of power or even access to power; without voice, opinion or participation in the decisions which affected the colony and even their individual lives.
We moved to political independence, taking with us virtually intact the same institutions and systems of subjugation and disempowerment that had been wielded by the colonial governors. Here lies the heart, the core of our political dysfunction from which all our myriad problems and frustrations over these past 50 years have flown.
To put it plainly, we have been trying to run an independent country on the basis of a colonial system of governance. It has not worked. It will never work.
So if we agree that here is the heart of our problem then the discussions on constitutional reform can truly begin. For now we can ask ourselves, what arrangements do we put in place to give voice to the voiceless? What structures do we create or amend to give power to the powerless?
(I was out of the country for the past two weeks and was shocked and saddened upon my return to learn of the passing of Prof John Spence. I never missed any of his articles particularly on the issue of constitutional reform and I always admired his meticulous research and his logical analysis. While I did not always agree with his prescriptions I learned much from him. I shall miss his contributions greatly. May he rest in peace.)
• Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean