Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Country before any party

 “At the end of the day, the national interest is what must be served.” This was the Prime Minister, six weeks ago, agreeing to refer the controversial pension increases to a Senate Select Committee. Now, the national interest must be served with a careful consideration of proposed constitution reform. If nothing, Dr Merle Hodge provides the basis. The AG is rude, wrong, and out of place. The proposal for run-off elections requires mature consideration and, in any event, the Constitution Reform Commission’s (CRC) disputed “addendum” says proportional representation in the Senate is a pre-condition to run-offs for the House. So six weeks after the pension increases were shelved in the national interest, why does the hodgepodge Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 appear unstoppable in the PM’s hands? 

It’s the PM’s modus operandi. Send the political mascots ahead to work the crowd and, depending on the fire or fawning, arrive with charm and script to save the day. Several questions on the amendments concern the process, justification, and sudden urgency. Six weeks ago, in stopping the two controversial bills to increase pensions, the PM advocated a policy of “always allowing views to be ventilated and decisions arrived at after such due consideration”. On that basis she stopped the proposals “until all perspectives and opinions are ventilated”. So what has changed? Why is the PM rushing these amendments through the Parliament given the widespread calls for information, discussion and mature consideration? Why interrupt the traditional August vacation for MPs and their families especially those with children on break from school? Is it because the PM already had her World Cup vacation with her grandson? 

The controversial amendments combine what may work for the country with what could work for the People’s Partnership in the next general election. It stands on the weak substrata of a CRC headed by a Government minister. Right there lies the moment when Constitution reform ceased serving the national interest and worked towards a partisan Partnership agenda. The national interest must prevail. 

But, as Dr Hodge has exposed, the PM’s choice of political mascots for the Bill is also at the heart of the problem. It’s a joke for the unelected AG to speechify on elections, recall and run-off. And, it’s amusing for Prakash Ramadhar to insist on election by majorities, when only a three per cent sliver of Congress of the People (COP) members voted him the COP’s political leader. 

Further, both Mr Ramlogan and Mr Ramadhar will seek ultra-safe seats in the next general election. Neither will put run-offs to the test in marginal constituencies. And while Mr Ramadhar says the bill strengthens democracy, how democratic was his initial decision to support the bill without hearing his party or his St Augustine constituents?

Mr Ramlogan is unelected, so for whom does he speak? And if Mr Ramadhar does not speak for his constituents and the COP, for whom does he speak?

Of the amendments proposed, run-off elections is the most controversial because it has not been fully explored. Dr Hodge says run-off is not an official part of the CRC report, but is in a confidential internal document still under discussion. How did the AG get legal opinions and how did the drafters of the bill reach to run-off? How will MPs properly represent the interests of their constituents, given one week to prepare for debate?

Wake up, PM. In your words, “at the end of the day, the national interest is what must be served.”

(For Dhanraj Pancham, school principal extraordinaire, mentor and friend. Rest in peace). 

/The author is a lawyer and possible PNM candidate for the next general elections.