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REFLECTIONS ON A STEALTH-FILLED DEBATE

By Selwyn Ryan

The debate on the Con­­stitution which took place last Mon­day indeed genera­ted more questions than answers. Our leaders were busily at work, trying to con­vince voters, analysts and perhaps themselves that they were engaged in an epic battle to change our political landscape for the better.

Some were more philoso­phical about the whole exer­cise while others see poli­tics as a game, in which there are win­ners and losers.

To hear some tell it, it was a struggle for democracy and institutional integrity. Some, not many, supported the pro­posals because they wanted to provide that MPs who did not perform satisfactorily should be recalled. Others argued the legislation was either inap­pro­­priate or unnecessary. Yet some claimed to see some cor­relation between the number of parties and the nature of parties. There was also much controversy as to just what would trigger demands for the recalling of parliamentarians. Everyone also seemed to know what would be considered an offence for which a recall peti­tion was justified. But what did we learn from the firings which we witnessed earlier in the season?

It is perhaps Jack Warner, who in the context of Cha­gua­nas West, refreshed our memo­ry about the concept of “representation”.

MPs were now expected to visit their constituents, keep the drains and water courses clean, and perhaps supply a box drain or truck-borne water.

Post Jack, MPs were also expec­ted to get roads fixed and paved, and to do all things that were the province of local government.

The problem was that MPs had other roles to perform in Parliament and in their offi­ces, some of which were not com­pa­tible with being a “good” representative. The task was to combine both roles, especially in far-flung constituencies.

Failure to get both done was to invite recall.

At any rate, there is likely to be much controversy as to what is the principal respon­si­bili­ty of an MP, now that new stan­ding orders dealing with committees are being put in place.

There were several other is­sues which consumed the ener­gies of those who took part in the formal and informal debate. One was the meaning of demo­cracy. Vir­tually every­one either jus­tified what they were attempting to do, in terms of “enlarging or refining dem­o­cracy”.

Their opponents were either said to be “afraid of demo­cracy”, “dangerous for demo­cracy” or “seeking to restrict its use”.

The problem was it was never clear what “democracy” was about. The term means many things. Was it about the integrity of elections and fairness in voting.

Were parliamentarians talking about “liberal de­mo­cracy”, “social democracy” or about a “nanny” state which provides more opportunities for community consultation, con­sociationalism, more trans­fers, more entitlements, more populism?

Much was said about the virtues of Westminster political conventions, as opposed to French or American models? It was a bazaar of half-digested ideas which could form the basis of a national consultation. Why do we not postpone the debate on proportional rep­re­sentation and the run-off sys­tem, instead of locking ourselves into this horrible run-off system which we have adopted and which we will certainly live to regret? Why do we not have a conclave which would have Dookeran and Rowley engage in a non-adversarial town hall meeting?

It is widely believed the Gov­­ernment’s reasons for intro­ducing the bills were im­peratives which had nothing whatsoever to do with demo­cracy or unity. If we knew what their agenda was, it might help us to understand their strange behaviour. We cannot take as given the reasons that have been offered us so far, other than they are ful­fil­ling the obligations made in their manifesto. My own view is it had nothing to do with LifeSport and its embar­rass­ments, and every­thing to do with planning for the coming general election. The PM and

her electoral team were clearly in a panic. They had to pre­vent vote-splitting such as occurred in St Joseph. They thought they had found a solution to the problem in the recesses of Section 46(I), which allowed them to amend the Constitu­tion without having to make use of a special majority.

Interestingly, there is ano­ther important provision in the Constitution, Section 73 (1, 2), per­tain­­ing to balloting which is not entrenched and which may be of interest to the Constitu­tion makers:

“The election of members of the House of Repre­senta­tives shall be by secret ballot and in accordance with the first past-the-post system. (2) For the purposes or subsection, (I) the votes shall be cast in ballot boxes of a design calculated to ensure their efficiency and reliability.”

We do not know by whom this strange section was inserted in the 1976 Constitu­tion and why? Its paternity is still to be established. Perhaps Eric Willi­ams put it in there for reasons best known to himself and Boysie Prevatt. (Sir Ellis Clarke said he had nothing to do with that document as is widely believed).

The Prime Minister has firmly denied her decision to put constitution reform on the agenda had anything to do with election stealing, and the method used to effect it. My own view is the strategies used were very clever, per­haps too clever by half. It was the work of some resource­ful tacticians who saw an opportunity to commit “party­cide” in Trinidad and Tobago, and used it.

The ultimate aim was to keep in harness all the ethnics who had recently “come back home at Kamla’s invitation”, plus, all those COPpites who vowed they could not support Dr Row­ley. The latter might yet have to issue a similar invita­tion to those self-same recalci­trants to “come back home”, with the proviso being home is a national and not an ethnic category. Kamla! Take warn­ing! History is running out of patience.
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