Re-engineering our Constitution

By Timothy Hamel-Smith

 FOLLOWING is the third part of the text of the address of Senate President Timothy Hamel-Smith to the Port of Spain Rotary Club on February 18. This series started in the Express on April 8.

Having considered the policymaking arrangements in the Constitution as carried out by the executive and the implementation arm which is the role of the public service and state agencies, let’s turn now to the mechanisms by which we seek to ensure that we get value for money through the oversight function of the Parliament.

As I have said this function has failed because the structures in our Constitution are not suited to a small state. The parliamentary committees are intended to scrutinise the work of government departments and state enterprises and agencies to ensure that we are getting value for money from these entities. This represents the implementation arm of the government through our public service and state agencies.

The operation of this system requires MPs who are full-time dedicated individuals committed to their main substantive profession as parliamentarians, legislators and constituency representatives and not like amateur sportsmen, playing sport as a sideline during their spare time. We cannot get democracy and good governance on the cheap.

So we ask “How should our Parliament be configured to achieve these goals?” I believe that a single House can more effectively and efficiently perform this service with effective and responsible government and yet retain the checks and balances we need to ensure that governments are held to account.

I would retain the right for the president to appoint nine independent senators in his own discretion. The independent senators should be chosen from persons with the appropriate disciplines to carry out the functions which are required of them, including service as members of the presidential advisers council. These independent senators would sit in the House. We would have a unicameral system and therefore no senate. All legislation would require the support of at least one of the independent senators, save where three-fifths of the members voted in favour of the legislation. This would ensure that the same check and balance provided by independent senators in the senate as at present would be retained but would not require that we replicate the functions in two separate chambers, which a small society can little afford.

I recommend that one half of the House consist of 41 members who are constituency representatives and 41 who are chosen from party lists. This would mean we would have a House comprising 91 individuals, which includes the nine independent senators. This number of members would result in us having 75 parliamentarians available to carry out the parliamentary committee system which is so vital to effective performance of the role of Parliament in ensuring oversight and that the country receives value for money.

In addition I recommend that we introduce the following provisions which will further support us getting value for money, but also diminish the winner-take-all system that now exists which is so debilitating and counter-productive in our plural society.

• Constituency Development Funds

• Ensure all constituencies benefit from funding regardless of political affiliation

• Use of funds subject to rules and accountable to parliamentary committee

• Reduce debilitating winner-take-all approach

• Independent Economic Development and Policy Advisory Council with no political affiliation

• Chair appointed by president in his own discretion

• Two members appointed on advice of prime minister

• One member appointed on advice of minority leader

• Two members appointed by business organisations

• Two members appointed by civil society organisations

• Role of Council

• Recommend to Parliament for approval

• Policies on economic development and distribution of funding to regional corporations and municipalities and the Tobago House of Assembly

• Policies for education, energy, security, health and any other areas Parliament may authorize  

• Mandate that legislation be introduced to treat with procurement and political party financing

• Introduction of these measures will change the trajectory of politics and development 

• Establish the infrastructure underpinning value for money in expenditure for development

We now turn to the electoral system which would allow for fair representation of the electorate which is the hallmark of any democracy. At present the members of the House are elected throughout the first past the post voting system or what is sometimes called the winner-take-all system. So let’s see “What has been the effect of this voting system?”

One commentator has this to say about our political arrangements and I quote:

“Below the surface of Trinidad’s political peace exists an antagonistic ethnic monster waiting its moment of opportunity to explode. The image of a politically stable and economically prosperous state however conceals powerful internal contradictions in the society. Many critical tensions prowl through the body politic threatening to throw the society into turmoil. Perhaps, the most salient of these tensions derives from the country’s multi-ethnic population.”

“...This internal contradiction in Trinidad’s polity stands as its most potent threat to stability of the society. Ethnic dominance in government and identity politics soon became a way of life fraught with an immense undercurrent of sectional alienation for the losers in the competition for recognition and resources.”

“Repeated victory by one sectional community over the other is not accepted by the vanquished group which withdrew its moral support from the state.”

“In particular, representation tends to become communalised so that the party in power symbolises not the public will at large but sectional solidarity and ethnically particularised interests. Citizen commitment is passionately expressed but communally cleaved so that only one section at a time identifies with the governing regime. The out-section is alienated”. 

That’s what we call the winner-take-all electoral system which results in the devil taking the hindmost. As a result at any one time a significant proportion of Trinbagonians feel alienated. It is this alienation that leads to seeds of discord being sown and citizens having no sense of ownership, patriotism or belonging and therefore consider themselves free to mash up the place.

Continues tomorrow

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