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Ebb and Flow of a People’s Independence

By Sunity Maharaj

the farcical ending to the constitutional debate, in which the Prime Minister abandoned her high platform of majority representation for horse-trading so choreographed as to raise suspicion, did no justice at all to the heights of excellence scaled over three days of sparring in the Senate.
As with the bill itself, the process by which the Senate arrived at the vote was more important than the vote itself. Unbridled by the harness of partisan interest, the Independent bench seized the freedom to soar.
Over three days and nights, we were treated to the reasoned wisdom of Senator Anthony Vieira with its sure grasp of moment and meaning; the passionate clarity of Helen Drayton, the clear-minded conviction of Rev Joy Abdul-Mohan, the straightforwardness of Ian Roach and technical alertness of Sharon Legall whose timely intervention helped the government to close a major legal loophole that could’ve affected the constitutionality of the Bill.
Equally enriching was the studiously researched logic of David Small whose ominous warning about us “entering unchartered waters” and stated condition of campaign finance reform were so at odds with his vote that one was left to wonder whether he was channeling his academic advisor from Cranfield University when the vote was taken.
Of the others, Victor Wheeler seized the opportunity to champion Tobago’s constitution issues and insist on process respectful of the island’s place in the partnership with Trinidad. For reasons best known to himself, Rolph Balgobin chose to subsume his capacity for intelligent discourse under trite ole talk in a matter of deep importance to the nation. By contrast, Dhanayshar Mahabir brought the full weight of his training and intensity of energy to the task, even if the solution offered by economics is not particularly useful to a problem posed by politics. Sorely missed was Senator Elton Prescott who was abroad on other matters.
For the Opposition, Faris Al-Rawi rose to the challenge and provided real leadership for the argument against, resisting the impulse to short-change the process by an excess of cheap politicking. On the Government’s side, Bhoe Tewarie took command with a sweeping overview of the historical backstory to Constitution Reform in making the case for bold action now, even if others deem it “bold-faced”.
Outside, on the pavement, the much-maligned people kept watch in a vigil that will go down in history, if only for its duration. Perhaps influenced by the televised interviews of protestors on the first day of the House debate, far too many parliamentarians were willing to peddle the dangerously disrespectful view of those outside as ignorant and unimportant. Even more than elected MPs, selected senators have a responsibility to consider the public interest to which they have been called upon to serve. Although individual expertise brought them to the Senate, they are not there to serve individual interest but the well-being of the nation as recognised through the public interest. Independent senators are neither judges nor jurors who need to be insulated from public opinion. Quite the opposite. Their assumed independence is designed to free them from the hamstring of partisan political interest to serve the public interest. In matters involving constitution reform, where the core issue involves the power relationship between people and those who act — or will act — in their name, the people are, by definition, central to the issue. It is nonsensical for Independent Senators, above all, to be intemperate with the people, especially in this particular case where nine unelected persons, unfettered by elected party whips, were handed the power to change the voting system- a power that must belong to the people.
Despite the many flashes of brilliance in the Senate debate, none of it should blind us to the fact that a constitutional amendment that changes the voting process should never be contemplated, much less implemented, without meaningful public consultation. By voting to change the voting process, knowing that the run-off provision had not been taken to the public, Senators Balgobin, Mahabir and Small, arrogated unto themselves an individual right to have a decisive say in a matter that belongs to all. Even if the law does allow it, and even if they truly believe the Bill is a good thing for the country, the absence of public input should have worried and guided them to the wiser position of maintaining the status quo until an agreed standard for public input was met.
Still, this Bill is just part of the ebb and flow in a people’s quest for a political system that allows meaningful participation and representation. This Bill is no stranger to us; it is consistent with our history of the abuse of power in the name of democracy and, as such, should intimidate no one. If it enters the law, it will unleash new and unanticipated forces with the potential to change the political dynamic of the society in directions that will depend on who controls it.
Both inside and outside of Parliament, the debate has made the public more articulate in its case for forms of representation that bring multiple interests into the power equation. The old political architecture of winner-take-all is bursting at its seams, unable to contain the impulses that have been leading us towards coalitions of all kinds amid pleas for proportional representation. As the antithesis of both, the Bill is guaranteed to trigger change. While not all change is good change, all present opportunities. Mindful of the possibilities, let us cherish the defiant spirit of freedom on this Independence Day.
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