Sunday, December 17, 2017

Finally, a constitution reform crowd-puller

Lennox Grant logo61

Mark Fraser

In this current high season of interest in constitution reform, it’s salutary to recall the low ratings enjoyed, until now, by the only show in town of that name. 

Of the constitution reform “pro­cess”, the single outward sign until now has been the public consul­ta­tions, launched in March 2013 by  Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

Citing a “view by some that there is nothing wrong with the Con­sti­tution”, she didn’t hold out too much hope for the box-office success of the consultations. But she upheld “a general feeling that changes to the Constitution are required after 50 years of Independence”.

Somewhere in there lies a vague understanding that, 50-plus years after Colonial Office arm-twisters nudged Eric Williams and Rudranath Capildeo towards the dotted line, it’s about time to revisit what they signed. Revisits had taken place in the 1970s, in an exercise which bore out the truism that “the medium is the message”. 

Without any opposition involve­ment, prime minister Eric Williams inaugurated the Republic of Trini­­-

dad and Tobago. Republic Day has accor­dingly remained, without a plausible reason for being. 

That 1976 republican Constitution reconfirmed central executive pre-eminence, resident in the office of

prime minister. My folk-history nar­rative in this space last week had been prompted by the iconic January 2004 exercise of such power by Patrick Manning. 

Mr Manning made a ceremony of handing the police commissioner appointment letter to Everard Snaggs when the authority to do so lay with the Police Service Commission. He was driven by a swagger impulse,  deriving from the sense of all power that came with being prime minister.

That he could go so far drama­tised a chilling message. A reactive urgency to “bridle this king”, through applicable, but necessarily limi­ted, constitutional reform, end­ed up in the form of Police Service Act 2007, with its Gordian-knot provisions hopelessly tying up the police commissioner appointment.

Anything to keep it out of the prime minister’s hands. 

Only a politically driven appre­hension of real and present peril delivers traction for the wheels of the slow-moving juggernaut that is constitutional reform. The fists being shaken and the voices being raised at the Waterfront barricades belong to people who had mostly skipped the “process” of the Constitution Reform Committee’s consultation road shows. 

Evincing regret over attention lapses, Constance McTair posted on Facebook, on behalf of yet other people: “The majority of us did not attend the consultations (the usual attitude to issues that affect us). We are now reacting to an issue that we showed no interest in.”  

I attended none of the sessions. My own uptake capacity, going back

to UWI (University of the West In­dies) days, remains easily exhausted by the minutiae that make politics 

a “science”. To the extent, then, that consultations resolve into debates over various brands of proportional representation, my eyes glaze over. And now, run-off systems?

I was a lively witness, however, to prime minister Williams’ marathon trashing of the Wooding Constitu­tion Commission report, and the enactment of his own preferences for the republican Constitution. Mem­ory recalls his characterisation of proportional representation as “a dagger aimed at PNM’s majorities”.

So the politics attending consti­tution reform remains capable of keeping me and others awake. For

the rest that look and sound like nitty-gritty, I could rely on the gui­dance of specialists. 

For the local government elec­tion last year, the Partnership admi­nis­tration tried out proportional repre­sentation. Former chief justice Michael de la Bastide, a member of the 1974 Wooding Commission which had introduced the PR idea, accepted the 2013 initiative as “almost a pilot project”. He expressed continuing “support of pro­portional representation in a mixed

soften some of the inequities pro­duced by the first-past-the-post system.” 

Nigel Henry’s voice rose in the wilderness of condemnations last week of the Government’s run-off

proposal for a second-round elec­tion. Noting most commentators “hypothesise” only ill effects from

implementation of a run-off system, he disputed the sky-is-falling out­come predicted for T&T demo­cracy:

Scrutiny of the numbers and empi­rical data elsewhere in the world argue against this view.” 

US-schooled data scientist Henry, unmoved by barnstorming T&T  poli­tical rages, marshalled referen­ces from abroad, crunched local electoral data and reviewed past outcomes. T&T, he noted, has sur­vived the experience of post-elec­tion delays in forming a govern­ment.  He offers this calming proposition: “The unlikely chance of ‘uncertainty’ is a small price to guarantee the certainty that comes with a govern­ment democratically elected by popular mandate.”

Meanwhile, local responses are characterised by a focus on motive. Aftershocks of bacchanals, starting in 2010 with Reshmi, and ending serially in the “-gate” suffixes, have so doomed prospects of credibility as to stir suspicion of election-stealing intent. 

Was Legal Affairs Minister Pra­kash Ramadhar’s leadership of that “process” such as to detract from

its credibility, resulting in dimin-ished public interest? Such doubts, if she had them, didn’t stop Merle Hodge, and others, from serving as commissioners, though dispute eventually erupted over what did and did not form part of the report.

Reginald Dumas, also a Wooding commissioner, last week attributed current prevalence of bad mind to disruption within the “crucial and sensitive domain of trust”.

This folk historian struggles to recall when trust, in any sitting gov­ernment, was greater or lesser.