Winston Dookeran

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Looking out for the next generation

By Winston Dookeran

 Much has already been said about the proposals that are before us, with respect to the right of recall, and I see a gene­ral acceptance of that principle, subject, of course, to modifications to the mechanisms to make it realistic. 

To me, that is a matter that the process will deal with in due course. The question of coalition politics was given vent in the Wooding Commission by his articulation for some form of proportional representation, and it is that context the issue of proportional representation in some form became the proper reflection of the changing politics and sociology of the country.

What is the most troubling part of the proposal that has been laid in this Parliament and under discussion is the part which says that the run-off mechanism is based on what some of my colleagues have referred to as majorital type of politics, majority politics. 

But I want to make reference to the letter that Dr Merle Hodge sent to the newspaper. 

Dr Merle Hodge is indeed a respected activist; it is unfortunate that she was attacked, especially by my colleague.

But this is what she said, among other things in this letter, the run-off mechanism directly contradicts the principle of proportional representation, which is a central recommendation of the Constitution Reform Committee. 

The run-off mechanism directly contradicts the principle of proportional representation, which is the central recommendation of the Constitution Reform Committee, Chapter Five, she mentioned. 

So if I were to vote in support of this run-off mechanism, I am voting against the principle of proportional representation, and that is my major concern at this point, and I cannot have spent an entire life in search of a mechanism to bring about a wider participation of all the diffe­rent groups in this society and adopted that we should move towards proportional representation in some form and fashion and now have to simply accept that a run-off mechanism will be a substitute and, in fact, it is a contradiction.

Madam Deputy Speaker, this is not about the politics of today, this about the politics of tomorrow and the next generation, and I cannot sit here and allow the next generation’s interest to be compromised by the politics of today.

I set myself that course many years ago when I went in Mid Centre Mall and called for a different kind of politics from what I had inherited.

Mr Speaker, that course is still in my mind and I am still motivated by it, and I know it is right for the next generation of people in this country.

So you see, Mr Speaker, Madame Deputy Speaker, I said first and foremost that the process is just as important as the content, and I say now that we cannot accept a mechanism that is in contradiction of a fundamental principle of the Congress of the People (COP) and others in this particular debate.

Do we have a choice? Do we have a choice? We have found the mechanism that we will deal with those things that can be dealt with within the framework of the majority in this Parliament, and the Prime Minister has announced earlier on that other legislation will come forward on proportional representation, but we cannot deal with one part without dealing with the other part because then we will be buying cat in bag on this very fundamental issue for the people of this country. That is also my concern.

I am just simply expressing the torment that went through me during tonight as I listened to the debate, and I understood where I myself had laid my entire political bucket down; how could I now kick that bucket out of the bathtub?

Madam Deputy Speaker, very recently, we began to build a conversation and an argument that will ensure that our democracy can be deepened on the basis of the principles which we set about, and we came up with a document called “Every Vote Matters in the Election”.

“Every Vote Matters in the Election”. Notice, it is every vote matters, every vote must count and that is the basis upon which we said we shall build the new frameworks, based on proportional representation, based on use of referendum.

Because if, in fact, we cannot get agreement in this Parliament on proportional representation we must find the mechanism to go to the people to get that agreement so that we can reflect the will of the people for that.

So I, therefore...I want to quickly refer to a few sentences which were done by the most Honourable PJ Patterson, the former prime minister of Jamaica, in a foreword to a book in which I, among others, participated called Power, Politics and Performance.

This was a detailed expression of how power, politics and performance are linked together. Constitution making is about the distribution of power and is at the heart of performance.

What did Mr Patterson say, “There is still an ongoing search to create a brand new paradigm for the exercise of political power. It is high time that the perception of politics as an obstacle to the advancement of the Caribbean be removed. This, indeed, is a moment to expose bold concepts which extend the frontiers of our knowledge, that also reflect the full appreciation of what is essential to fashion new political models engendering change and deepening the political process. We must not put on a framework which we have to sell by populace clothing, it must be based on fundamental structures’.

And that is why we must be happy that we started this debate, and I agree, for the first time, issues of this nature have been debated by the Parliament of the country but it must not be a debate that is dealing with the shadow and not the substance.

And, therefore, it is necessary to bring together all the elements that have been reflec­ted in that report, including the addendum, and, in so doing, be able to bring together what Mr Patterson called high time to embrace new models of politics and political behaviour. We go on to explain it all in the document.

So my comment has been that this debate is taking place based on the frivolity of the present when it ought to take place on the future and the nation ahead of time and the citizens ahead of us.

But I know you have to start and the argument has been made that you have got to start, but if you start on a foot that will contradict the next step, then you have not made a start forward; you have perhaps made a start backwards.

So, Madam Deputy Speaker, all my political life, I have searched for this formula.

I recognised that it had to come through the politics. I recognised that it is through the politics will emerge the different formula in which I believe we all share, and I also recognise you do not come in one shot, it will come in pie­ces over time, eventually culminating in a poli­tical party called the Congress of the People, which was able to a secure significant percentage of votes.

The future of politics in Trinidad and Tobago will see a greater constituency in numbers calling for good governance as opposed to ethnic loyalties. This is my firm belief.

And anyone who is interested in a future must build that future based on good governance policies, not on the basis of ethnic loyalties.

And if you have a formula as the one that is proposed to us today, a formula that is going to have this run-off, what it is saying is that coalition politics is not dead, it will flourish but will not flourish as a subset.

I think the most important piece of information that I gleaned from this concept is what is the impact of these measures. It is not that the politics of coalition will not flourish but it will flourish within parties, not among parties.

I want to refer that.

Coalition of politics will be within the party structure and not of the party structure, so we will have to go to one of the two dominant parties to find a place.

So we are talking about the changing demands on our political system and the need to have the politics of coalition and the need to have a system of proportional representation, but what we have before us is going to have coalition within the dominant parties. There is nothing wrong with that, in fact, some will argue that in the past, the parties were coalitions in their own right, from within.

But it will in fact not allow space for coalition among parties and that is where you are denying access to a democratic right.

That to me is the most dangerous part of this legislation, and that is the behaviour that will develop over time; every party can build coalitions within its borders but a political system cannot deny coalitions to be established so that you can build coalitions among parties.

So, Madam Deputy Speaker, I believe that the legislation before us is missing, in terms of its accountability to the country, on the count of the process and on the count of the mechanism that will in fact stifle the development of parties. 

It is a point that has been debated and some people do not agree but this is my strong view that that is so.

In order to facilitate this, I expressed these views very openly to my colleagues—they are all aware of it—I won’t go into the details but we had a full session. 

I was disappointed in the session but everyone is entitled to their view.

But I produced a five-page document on this, calling in the first instance for a Joint Select Committee to be established so there can be more in-depth analysis, and the public can be invited and then call in and look in at all the requirements in order to make sure that this attempt at constitutional change does not simply end up one that it is appealing to populace goals but more fundamentally to things that are going to sustain our democracy.

I was disappointed that such a mechanism was not accepted, or any other mechanism of that nature.

I know that the prime minister expressed a deep commitment to bring things in the future and, at the same time, the prime minister said to us we must make a start, and she is right; we must make a start but why do we have to make a start, Mr Speaker, if we have not gotten a consensus on the issue before us, and that is my concern and that is my dilemma.

And I am not saying this here for the first time; I have said this within the corridors of Cabinet, they are all aware of it.

And I believe it is somewhat in recognition of that, as well as the fact that the Congress of the People took a strong position on this issue, that the prime minister did indicate that she was withdrawing the obligations of collective responsibility. In other words, saying, “Well, you are free to vote how you want,” and I say I appreciate that.

But for me, if conscience matters and indeed it matters and we must exercise our conscience on an important issue like this, it is also important to exercise that conscience in the concept of collective responsibility, so I am not prepared here to simply accept the conscience matters in the vote before us. I am also prepared to accept the obligations of that vote, in the context of collective responsibility.

I will seek a further audience on that matter with the Prime Minister.

But at this stage, I want to say I have an obligation to myself and to my own conscience to support the aspirations of the 140,000 people who voted for the Congress of the People in 2007 and perhaps beyond that.

Now, I also have an obligation to ensure that the young people of this country will have a political and electoral system in which they can in fact have free and independent choice in the exercise of their democratic rights.

Those are the two fundamental concepts and in whose name I have to stand.

This must not be construed to suggest that there is anything diametrically opposed to what is being proposed, but in the context of the debate before us, it is important to recognise that we do have obligations from which we cannot escape, and these are political obligations but these are also personal obligations.

And in all my political life, and perhaps it has been too long, I have always attempted, whether it is in the formation of the NAR (National Alliance for Reconstruction), whether it was in dealing with the most direct attack on our democracy in 1990, whether it was in the re-creation of the transformed United National Congress (UNC) or, eventually, in the formation of the Congress of the People, I have had one star and one star always, and that star is now looking me in my eyes and saying, “What is your inner voice, Mr Dookeran?”

I am here today, I respect every Parliament and I respect my own Parliament and because I have to listen to my inner voice, I have to indicate to this honourable House that I really will be unable to support this bill in its present formation.

I will therefore have no choice but to vote against it at this point in time, thank you.


—The above is an edited version of the contribution of Minister of Foreign Affairs and a former political leader of the Congress of the People (COP) Winston Dookeran, on the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 in Parliament on Monday night.  

Dookeran’s full contribution is available online at www.trinidadexpress.com.

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