Saturday, February 24, 2018

Even more hot air

In my column of May 9 last year, I argued that the Government’s Constitution reform effort would likely come to naught—“not because of the absence of fresh, relevant and progressive ideas but rather because the Government cannot restrain the urge to control long enough to give non-partisanship its day in the sun.” The report of the Ramadhar Commission contains fresh (and even relevant and progressive) ideas but the Government has not lost its urge to control, is as partisan as ever, and, worse, is not as united as it was at the formation of the Commission. Further, the hurdles the Government has to overcome to get the eventual bill passed have not gone away.

Before we elaborate on the fresh ideas, let’s rehash the hurdles. Hurdle No. 1: Prakash Ramadhar. He is the head of the Commission, which means that he has been in a position to unduly influence the data-gathering, data-selecting, and data-analysing processes, “pure’’ intentions or not. As I observed in the May column, “it is impossible for Ramadhar as an executive member of the ruling coalition to defend against the claim that his presence on the Commission and, worse, his chairmanship have not had, and will not have, undue partisan influence on the hearings and deliberations.’’

Hurdle No. 2: the PNM. The government will need the opposition’s support to get the bill passed, since passage depends on a special majority of votes, which they don’t have. But the PNM have said that they will not be giving them any more legislative support given their abuse of PNM support in the matter of Section 34 (in case you forget, the attempt to manipulate the law for the advantage of two of their financiers) and their opportunism in the Municipal Corporations (Amendment) Act (among others). The problem is compounded by the fact that we are in an elongated election period in which the PNM would not want to give the electorate the sense that they are supporting the government on an issue as sensitive and fundamental as constitution reform. The PNM would regard legislative support as being naïve at best and suicidal at worst. As I said in the May column, the PNM’s attitude that the government is untrustworthy has already frozen beyond the point of thawing.

Hurdle No. 3: Tobago. Chief Secretary Orville London did not support the Commission in its consultations and the Tobago PNM took a hands-off approach generally. Further, the Tobagonian electorate has learnt to distrust the government’s approach to their desire for self-determination given the government’s arbitrary turnaround during the THA elections. They have taken note that the government presented proposals on new constitutional arrangements for the relationship between Tobago and Trinidad that veered dramatically from those in the bills proposed by both a government-approved team and the PNM-led House of Assembly. Would the reforms include changes in respect of Tobagonian self-government that the Tobagonian electorate could embrace?

Hurdle No. 4: public distrust at the green paper stage. The consultation meetings were poorly attended but water will be more than flour when the reform process reaches the green paper stage. People’s negative emotions will be aroused when the changes become known and the opposition gets into the act. At that time, the government will face widespread distrust of its ability to govern.

Nothing has happened to cause these hurdles to disappear, has there?

But there are fresh and interesting ideas in the Ramadhar Report as far as I can glean from newspaper reports. Some of them are: giving the voter two votes, one for electing MPs and the other for electing senators; expanding the number of senators to the same number of MPs; creating the cabinet out of the body of senators; and giving the Government to whichever party wins more than 50 per cent of the Senate seats or, in the case of a tie, the highest number of votes in the elections for the Senate.

I like the attempt to separate the legislature (the MPs) from the executive (senators) but I am not so sure that genuine separation would be achieved if the votes were to go to political parties. The same party could win a majority of both the MP and senate seats. If that happened, how would the executive be different from the legislature? And how would the legislature be able to constrain the actions of the executive (since they would be the only force in the parliament to do so)?

But these are premature musings. I need the whole report for context.

The report will be discussed by cabinet next week and I can only wait and see what comes out of it. Already, though, there is a group that is calling for Mr Ramadhar to keep his promise to come back to the people with the proposals of his Commission, as promised. The Constitution Reform Forum says that to renege on that commitment would reflect “a complete disregard of the fundamental principles of people’s participation in the Constitution reform process.’’

Ramadhar might argue that he will come back when the process reaches the green paper stage, but that would not be what he promised but a version of their views tampered with by the cabinet.

Another cause for distrust of the Government?

• Winford James is a UWI lecturer and political analyst