Thursday, February 22, 2018

Look out for the aftershocks

 Part II

Why would anyone who believes in true democracy not support term limits for prime ministers and parliamentarians? The only explanation I can think of is that they suffer from a Methuselah-like political complex. These are often the politicians who have the most ruinous effect on the Caribbean. They hang on to power like ticks on cows, like parasites in the intestinal tract.

A ten-year term limit, as is being proposed for the T&T Constitution, is the perfect deterrent to our lifelong politicians. Indeed, any prime minister and/or parliamentarian who cannot operationalise his/her objectives for his/her country and/or constituency within ten years is simply a freeloader who does not want to do an honest, hard day’s work for an honest day’s pay. These are the dinosaur-types that we desperately need to rid ourselves of in the region. As to the argument that the regional states are small and cannot put such limits upon those who serve at the highest political levels, I say pure, unadulterated rubbish. The fact that we are small states is even more reason to have small governments and term limits for all politicians, since it is one of the surest ways to curb the natural proclivity, especially of non-achievers, to situate themselves as kings, barons and knights in the absence of the practice of Westminster traditions.

Mrs Persad-Bissessar, as quoted in the Trinidad Guardian, was spot on when she said: “We’re of the view [that] fossilised leadership, which entrenches itself via manipulation and control of party politics, is an anathema to the principles of democracy and growth. We’ve had our fair share of leaders who continued to rule and refused to give way, even though it was obvious that the time for change had come. This can suffocate new talent and stifle a democracy. Some 91 countries worldwide have term limits of two terms for their heads of government. We’re seeking to become country number 92 with term limits for the prime minister.”

I put it a bit stronger. Regional politics must cease being a refuge for non-achievers, scamps and those who suffer with Importance Deficit Syndromes. So bring on the term limits.

Fixed election dates? It is a no-brainer. Why should one man/woman be allowed to walk around and boast that “only I and I man know the date when the trumpet shall sound?” This is pure nonsense, which only feeds self-aggrandisement. The political sword of Damocles, which most Caribbean prime ministers have been given to decide the date of an election, must be destroyed. Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar, as quoted in the Guardian, encapsulates the common sense of a fixed election date: “It is therefore proposed that the life of a Parliament should ordinarily be fixed at five years. This will effectively fix the date for the holding of general elections. Gone would be the days of silly boasts and taunts about leaders ‘having the date in their back pocket’. This provides clarity for the population at large, and enhances the ability to participate in our democratic life; for all will know the electoral timetable.”

The decision to introduce several changes to its Parliament’s rules, including a 30-minute Prime Minister’s Question Time on the second sitting of every month, can augur well for democracy. Additionally, all statements by ministers now have to be submitted to the Speaker in advance of their delivery to Parliament. These statements are limited to ten minutes and must be on government policy. Their new Standing Orders make provision for urgent questions requiring just an hour’s notice, as compared to the 28-day notice period which previously applied to all ministerial questions. Previously, all speakers had a total of 75 minutes, but the new limit is 30 minutes, with an extension of 15 minutes. Jamaica’s Sectoral Debates and general parliamentary procedures would benefit greatly from some of these advances.

The right to recall non-performing MPs outside a national election is another constitutional amendment being proposed that also makes eminent sense. Why should constituents be saddled with politicians for five years who demonstrate measurable failure to put physical and social infrastructure in place to make the vast majority of their constituents lives overtly better? Such politicians are but leeches on the taxpayers. The right of recall would force politicians to represent their constituents with real vigour and purpose, instead of being peons of their political party leaders and his/her agenda.

Another significant provision is for a “run-off” poll in any constituency where contestants —from parties or as independents—fail to secure more than 50 per cent of valid votes. Admittedly, given the ethnic make-up of the twin-island state, and the tendency for people in T&T to vote along ethnic lines, this will be difficult to establish in a practical sense.

Jamaica would do well, nonetheless, to pay serious attention to the pace-setting Constitution [Amendment] Bill 2014, being debated in T&T. While former prime ministers Bruce Golding and P J Patterson spoke about foundational constitutional changes for Jamaica, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar is doing it for Trinidad and Tobago... big difference, big, big difference.

Look for the aftershocks in the region. 


—Part one was published yesterday.