Sunday, February 25, 2018

Vote First, Debate Later; Repeal Now

Sunity Maharaj62

Mark Fraser

 A little egg on her face would be a small price to pay for Kamla Persad-Bissessar to throw herself into reverse gear and lead her Government, her party and the country back out of the constitu­tion­al quagmire into which she has so precipitately  and unnecessarily led it.

The fact that last Monday night’s UNC (United National Congress) forum was the first time she was discussing her Constitution (Amendment) Bill within her own party should have told her how wrong she had been to hustle

off the vote in a one-night stand in the House while most of the country lay 

asleep in their beds.

The result has been a back-to-front process, in which the vote was taken before the debate occurred. Now that the debate has exploded in public to reveal how desperately the country wants to discuss this matter, the wise response would be for the Government to take a cue from the misadventure 

of the infamous Section 34. 

On Tuesday, the Govern­ment should withdraw the bill from the Senate. Then, it should return to the House and rescind the vote on the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014. Then, with the country electrified on the issue of Constitution reform, the PM should lay her entire package of reform proposals for public debate, alongside those of other political par­ties, organisations and eve­ryone else with something to propose. 

Out of this might come a meaningful consul­­tation exercise, with a chance for

national con­sensus. Such reform should be com­pre­-­hen­sive and not piecemeal. 

It should include mecha­nisms for greater decen­tra­lisation of power, anchored in stronger local government, built-in accountability from those who act in our name, campaign-finance reform, transparency in governance and referendum legislation as a means of building broad public participation into decisions that affect the Constitution. 

In the process towards constitutional reform, we in Trinidad and Tobago are only just beginning. While we can sincerely thank the Prime Minister for triggering the debate, she and her Government need to undo their pre-emptive strike and en­cou­rage her party to parti­­ci­pate in the national dis­cus­sion, on terms equal to everyone else. 

Her strategy of painting objectors with a balisier brush is as effective as using

a nail-polish brush to paint the Red House. When the objectors include senior members of her own Cabi­net,

the Law Association, Fede­ration of Independent Trade Unions and Non-Govern­-

mental Organisations (FITUN), the Tertiary Stu­dents Union of T&T, the Joint

Trade Union Movement (JTUM), the Emancipation Support Committee, Working women, ranking members of her own party and a barrage of individual voices, then 

she must face the fact that she has a national revolt on her hands. If she refuses to with-draw, and if the Senate fails to find a way out of the mess, the revolt will only intensify.

It was wrong to have bypassed the country on an issue as important as the voting process. Even if a simple majority is legal—an opinion likely to be tested in court—why would any gov­ernment not want to have the fullest possible public backing for a fundamental change in the voting process?

To sneak the bill into the Parliament’s vacation time and strategise with the simple

majority as a confessed means of getting around Oppo­sition objec­tions is Machi­avellian and downright dodgy. Then, to place this piece of subversion on the altar of democracy is the cruellest irony of all. And we haven’t even got around as yet to discussing the bill itself. 

It is immaterial whether or not the members of the Constitution Reform Com­mission (CRC) signed off on the ad­dendum, which mys­teriously surfaced after 

dead­line time to make its way straight into Parliament via the PM’s bill. While it is very material that three out of the five commissioners were not even at the fateful meeting of the CRC (Dr Merle Hodge being on holiday, Carlos Dillon in the United

States and Prakash Rama­dhar in China), the fact is that even if they were in full agreement with the run-off proposal, and even if the entire Cabinet agreed, they would constitute only a handful of people in a process that properly belongs to all the public.

For the  PM to have cut out the public is nothing short of hijacking the process. 

Rebuffed for the second time by public opinion, Dr Hamid Ghany sees a conspi­-

racy against change. Some people simply don’t want it, he says. Well, if they don’t, that is their prerogative, isn’t it? But perhaps, this is too facile a response. Public rejection, both in the case of Patrick Manning’s push for an executive presidency and Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s rush to electoral run-offs, has less to do with public resis­tance to change than to a lack of trust. What Dr Ghany needs to explain is his own willingness to be involved in constitutional reform pro­cesses that do not place the highest priority on public opinion. In the current case, as convenor of the final meeting, he needs to explain how the run-off idea entered the equation and why he did not insist the addendum be put out for public comment before its run-off proposal went to Parliament for an immediate vote. 

A run-off is one of a mul­titude of mechanisms by which people agree to be 

rep­resented and governed. 

It is neither inherently good nor bad. The important thing is how it works within the

overall system to deliver the twin objectives of demo­cratic government: full repre-

sentation and partici­pation. To pluck it out of nowhere and ask the public to back it without sight of the full package is to ask us to buy cat in bag. And there’s nothing either new or reformed about that.

It is the same old story of the abuse of power.

—Martin Daly’s column returns next week