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Re-engineering our Constitution

By Timothy Hamel-Smith

FOLLOWING is the first part of the text of the address of Senate President Timothy Hamel-Smith to the Port of Spain Rotary Club on February 18.

The first thing we need to recognise about the Constitution we inherited from the UK is that the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy cannot be miniaturised and be expected to function effectively. The UK has over 600 MPs in the House of Commons so the executive does not and cannot dominate the Parliament and the parliamentary committee system has sufficient members to enable proper oversight function. Additionally, members of the cabinet do not have to perform the multiple roles expected of the executive in T&T or at minimum have back-up systems to assist them in the exercise of their duties.

Compare this with the combined House of Representatives and Senate in Trinidad and Tobago consisting of 71 parliamentarians. The Westminster system we inherited simply cannot and does not function properly in T&T with 71 parliamentarians of which 30 or more form part of the executive.  If we are to achieve optimum performance we need a governance system tailor-made for a small plural society such as ours here in T&T.

Consider, for instance, that despite huge revenue streams we have failed over the last 50 years to transform the country and provide an acceptable quality of life for a large percentage of our citizens. Imagine in a nation of 1.3 million persons, with a budgeted expenditure of over $60 billion, more than 20 per cent of our citizens live below the poverty line. Something must be dramatically wrong for such a situation to exist. I believe one of the root causes for this lack of performance is our dysfunctional governance systems which are seriously flawed.

In my presentation today I propose to look at the elements of our Constitution under three headings as they relate to:

1. The executive, the policymaking arm of government, and the ways in which the current structures constitute an impediment to performance

2. Implementation, which is tied up with so much bureaucracy and red tape that development and public services fall abysmally short of the expectations of our citizens; 

3. The oversight function of Parliament which is barely alive and therefore the check and balance which should ensure value for money is practically non-existent;

4. The electoral system required to underpin the new institutional arrangements, where every vote counts and no vote is wasted; and

5. Finally to demonstrate how based on a simple majority vote a large percentage of the reforms we need can be achieved now

Is it that “we like it so?” or “Have we lost all hope for a brighter and better future?”

If we are content to remain underdeveloped and with unacceptable levels of poverty then we might as well leave the Constitution untouched as some parties seem to imply by the remark “If it is not broken, why fix it”. Well I’m here today to tell you the system is broken — it is dysfunctional and — it is in dire need of overhaul.

And I suspect that like all of you here today, most citizens recognize that T&T is brimming with potential and are crying out for leaders to point us in the right direction — a direction in which we create governance systems which can actually work towards transforming our country. As so admirably set out in the preamble to our Constitution, we believe “that there should be opportunity for advancement on the basis of recognition of merit, ability and integrity” for all individuals.

A platform on which we can build a truly great and prosperous nation, a nation where each member in our society can have an opportunity to contribute in a common venture, which reflects a common vision for our T&T.

So let’s turn to how we choose our executive — the arm of government on which we rely for creating good policy for sustainable development.

In examining this issue we need to ask the question: “What roles do our ministers have to perform?”:

First as legislators -- to review and pass laws for our nation;

Secondly as parliamentary committee members — to conduct oversight to ensure value for money — himself reviewing himself;

Thirdly as constituency representatives — meeting with and assisting constituents with their needs;

Fourthly in ministerial portfolios — responsibility for establishing and supervising the work of their ministries;

Fifthly as cabinet members — with responsibility for considering proposals from all Ministers;

Sixthly as cabinet committee — with responsibility to review in depth and make recommendations to cabinet;

Seventhly in political party members with responsibilities;

And eighthly “what about family life?”

No single human being can perform all such roles with any degree of success and therefore what we have done is set up our ministers for failure in one or other of these roles. Indeed those who try hardest to succeed by focusing on all of these functions may end up as mediocre performers by spreading themselves too thinly.

Beyond the question of multiple functions, “have you noticed that with each successive administration, the size of the Cabinet increases?” As a result of this, the executive further dominates Parliament thereby eroding the separation of powers and the ability of Parliament to undertake its oversight role. As a result, oversight and scrutiny of executive action, one of the key functions of Parliament suffers. And so our governance systems become even more dysfunctional with each passing year.

And why have cabinets in Trinidad and Tobago grown progressively larger and less efficient? The short answer our parliamentarians are not given the opportunity to treat their parliamentary role as a substantive job requiring their full time attention. For the Parliament to function properly the substantive job of parliamentarians must be to attend to their parliamentary duties. However we continue to perpetuate a system in which the job of a parliamentarian is viewed simply as a pastime, somewhat like an amateur sportsman. Members are therefore compelled to find an alternative substantive job which quite naturally occupies the majority of their time and Parliament is the loser.

* Continues tomorrow

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