Saturday, December 16, 2017

Limited thinking

A recent Express editorial entitled "Lessons to be learnt from US e lection" states that before election the People's Partnership made proposals for "limiting the terms of the Prime Minister to two stints at the helm".

The idea is ridiculous. It is clear evidence of a complete lack of holistic thinking, and of ignorance of the US Constitution. Yet the Express, instead of ridiculing the idea, seems to approve it.

Term limits can apply only to an elected official, and the Prime Minister is not elected. He or she is appointed in his or her capacity of leader of the majority (in our present Constitution, the majority party) in the House of Representatives. To require the Prime Minister to serve only two (or 200) terms would be to tell parties and /or members of parliamentary groups who can or cannot be their leader.

No serious parliamentary party would accept this, and no member of it other than the real leader would accept appointment. If, for the sake of taking office, they pretended to throw their support behind another member, the real leader would still lead from behind the scenes.

What I mean by holistic thinking is the recognition that a Constitution is a system, and that as in all systems, everything depends on everything else. For example, the question of "limiting" the mandates of the Prime Minister, once its impossibility is recognised, leads to the question of how, and whether, political parties should be recognised in the Constitution (in my view, not at all). Parties, to quote the late Lloyd Best, are the private face of politics. The World Bank, for example, lists political parties as NGOs.

The population has failed to recognise this, and politicians of both major parties have encouraged its ignorance because they want the Constitution to guarantee their parties against defection. The result of this deception, the nefarious Crossing the Floor Act, had in theory removed the right of constituents to decide who their elected representative shall be. Just as any provision purporting to limit the mandates of a Prime Minister would be an infringement of the rights of people to choose their own leaders in and out of Parliament. Inevitably, the Crossing the Floor Act has already failed on three occasions.

Another such cynical device was the provision, invented in Barbados and copied by us, that motions of no confidence are not against the government but against the Prime Minister! For that to work, enough members of the governing party would have to support the motion, and the government would collapse anyway. So it has never worked, because in our systems governments do not collapse..

In the United States the two-term limit arose out of the Republicans' determination that there should never be another Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Its desirability is debatable in any circumstances, but to consider it in the context of a Westminster (or pseudo-Westminster) system is futile. It is only relevant (and then perhaps only marginally) in the context of a system where the chief executive is directly elected (whatever he/she may be called).

This inevitably raises the question of the relationship between executive and legislature. In the United States they are rigorously separate. Should we adopt such a separation, the notion of term limits could well seem as undesirable as it now seems attractive to the unthinking.

In my view, if you don't want someone to have more than two terms, then don't vote for him the third time. Conversely, if our political class should throw up a leader of genius, why should we limit our use of him/her in advance?

The idea of an "executive president" is a shibboleth that has circulated over the years, completely divorced from any discussion as to its possible meanings. The important thing is not what we call the head of government, or whether we have one at all (Switzerland, for example, has none) but whether the executive should continue to be half in and half out of the legislature, as it is now. (The "half out" is the result of the automatic government majority in the Senate, and the right to appoint Senators as ministers). Above all, the question is how power is to be divided between the executive and the legislature.

After the most recent "consultation" on constitution reform, a spokeswoman stated that there was no question of any executive president having "powers such as those of the President of the United States". She, and no doubt most Trinbagonians, would be surprised to learn, if they took the trouble to read the Constitution of the United States, that it gives the president no powers at all.

Despite this, the notion has been received with apprehension by the public, in the completely false belief that it would lead to an increase in executive power, the excess of which the public dimly, and rightly, perceives as our main political problem. It is this apprehension, too, that gives rise to the idiotic hope of retaining a prime ministerial system but curbing executive power by means of unenforceable term limits.

The politicians, on the other hand, have again encouraged this apprehension, because while they too are aware that it is our present constitutional arrangements that give the executive unwarranted power, unlike the general public they want to keep it that way.

All T&T politicians, once they have achieved office, want politics to grind to a halt.