Sunday, January 21, 2018

Re-engineering our Constitution

This is the fourth and final part of the address by Senate President Timothy Hamel-Smith to the Port of Spain  Rotary Club on February 18. This series started in the Express on April 8.

I believe our winner take all electoral system as operated in our plural society has produced and exacerbated the cleavages and tensions which result from the supporters of the winning party gaining all the spoils of election victory while the losers believe their job is to make the country ungovernable.

What country could possibly achieve sustainable development when we flip-flop between such alternate divisive arrangements?  When we add to this the fact that since at least 1981 more than 20 per cent of the electorate have no representation in Parliament producing minority governments—that is the popular vote reflects more persons voting against than in support of the government—then we know that the present electoral system has failed us and we need change.

So what electoral system would produce a fairer system and better representation?

—Introduce a parliament consisting of single house (similar to New Zealand and Germany and the recommendation made by the Wooding Commission)

—MP’s elected as at present but utilising a preferential voting system to vote in each constituency

• Candidates appear on ballot paper as at present with party logo

• Voters identify their preferences among the candidates

• By placing on ballot paper 1:

1 against voter’s first choice candidate; 2 against voter’s second choice candidate; 3 against voter’s third choice candidate

— The EBC counts votes as follows:

• If a candidate gains more than 50 per cent of total votes in a constituency that candidate is elected

• If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the vote, then

—The last placed candidate is eliminated

—The votes for this candidate are re-allocated to the candidate named as second choice candidate on the ballot paper

—The candidate who ultimately gains more than 50 per cent of the votes is declared the winner.

Benefits of Preferential 


• No vote is wasted

• Higher voter turnout

• It ensures that the candidate elected is favoured by more than 50 per cent of electors in each constituency

• Avoids minority governments

• Avoids voter-padding or gerrymandering claims

• Introduces fairness and creates confidence in electoral system

—Introduces country-wide representatives

• Each political party presents to EBC prior to general election a party list comprising its candidates for country-wide representative and prime ministerial candidate

• Voters have a second ballot paper (ballot paper 2)

• Ballot paper 2 identifies each political party and its prime ministerial candidate

• Ballot paper 2 can also have “None of the Above”

• Voter places “X” next to party of choice.

—The EBC counts votes gained by each party

—Subject to 5 per cent threshold, each party is entitled to a percentage of the 41 seats as is roughly equal to percentage of votes won on ballot paper 2

—An election is held among all parliamentarians, other than independent senators, to vote for the prime minister from among prime ministerial candidates

—The prime minister chooses her cabinet from among persons on party list(s) 

Benefits of single house as so elected with independent senators

—Better separation of powers

—Effective parliamentary committee system – value for money

—Every vote counts

—Single house more efficient but retaining check and balance provided by role of independent senators

Finally the big question: Can we really achieve constitutional reform?

• Our Constitution provides for amendments in three different categories

—Provisions which require a three-quarters majority vote 

—Provisions which require a 2/3 majority vote

—Provisions which require a simple majority

• I would recommend that parliament  commence debate on legislation to make such amendments as can be passed

• Any amendments which would not get the support of required majority should be made the subject of a referendum 

•  So what amendments can be passed now?

—Introducing party lists from which ministers are chosen is a matter which is subject to amendment by simple majority vote.

—The electoral system for voting for constituency candidates can be amended from first past the post to preferential voting by a simple majority vote.

—Making independent senators chairpersons of committees would require simple majority vote, except for Public Accounts Committee and Public Accounts Enterprises Committee. 

—Introducing post of presidential advisers would require simple majority vote.

—Introducing the economic development and policy advisory council would require simple majority vote .

—Introducing constituency development funds. 

—Mandating the introduction of procurement and party financing legislation requires a three-fifths majority. 

What amendments would require a referendum?

—Eliminating the senate so that we create a single house.

—Altering the number of parliamentarians in the house.

—Election of country-wide representatives by proportional representation. 

—Election of president by the electorate.

—Independent senators chairing Public Accounts Committee and Public Accounts State Enterprises Committee

Constitutional Reform which can assist in the transformation of our country so as to improve our governance systems is achievable now. We owe it to ourselves to create an environment where there is:

• opportunity for all to seek self-fulfilment for a better quality of life and

• to remove constitutional provisions which marginalise large sections of our population

If we fail to grasp this opportunity we can expect

—the number of our citizens who feel alienated will only increase

—citizens will become more and more disenchanted

—crime and violence will become a way of life for more citizens who do not see themselves as having any opportunity for advancement

Let us then move forward to reform our Constitution now.