Friday, January 19, 2018

Functions and mechanics of govt

 A PECULIAR irony could be emerging in Trinidad and Tobago, where a prime minister who moved to limit her own hold and control over political power, has been made even stronger by a renewed public trust.

And what started off as a challenging test of the grit and resilience of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, by pursuing one of the more controversial reform measures brought by her Government, may very well have strengthened her public standing and chances of a second term. 

Debate on the Constitution Amendment Bill 2014 may have even guaranteed her the historic privilege of being the first Prime Minister to demit office after having arrived at her term limit of ten years.

 The bill, which was debated in the House of Representatives on August 4 and 5, and in the Senate from August 26 to 28, seeks to limit prime ministers to a maximum of ten years’ service, deliver the right of recall for non-performing MPs, and provide for second ballot run-off voting where election candidates fail to achieve over 50 per cent of the total votes cast.

It could not have been strategy; the Prime Minister faced opposing views from her own Government bench in the House of Representatives. Worse, the opposing views came from members of her Government’s coalition partner, the Congress of the People (COP).

Perhaps she sensed the resistance, or perhaps she took a gamble on proving her point publicly. Whatever her thinking, she untied the hands of her Cabinet Minister Members of Parliament from the collective responsibility for Cabinet decisions and urged them to vote their conscience.

 Resistance from within provided a situation that was opportunistically capitalised on by the Opposition People’s National Movement (PNM). Unfortunately for the Opposition, they were powerless to hide how starkly unprepared they were to raise the bar on their public positions. By their actions and weak response, they told the public: “we will refuse everything they say, but we haven’t any real reason or alternative’’.

By the end of the House of Representatives debate, the Prime Minister had her way with a majority vote and the Bill was stamped and sent upstairs to the Senate. She also scored a victory by defeating the Keith Rowley-led Opposition, not simply by votes, but by intellectual dexterity, leaving Dr Rowley and his MPs struggling to piece together some form of a response.

 The Opposition claimed insufficient time was given to consider the proposal. But most have dismissed the excuse, saying that the report had been public knowledge for over six months, and further with the consultation meetings having publicly started since 2013. 

In any event, the 12 Opposition MPs have combined experience in government and parliamentary democracy of well over 100 years. There can therefore be no excuse for the PNM’s lack of readiness, or for what was clearly a terrible lack of knowledge of the roles and functions in a parliamentary democracy.

For any person with even casual interest in governance, the debate between August 4 and August 28, in the House of Representatives and the Senate provided a rare and indeed, extremely enlightening glimpse into the function and mechanics of Government.

 Jeffrey Taylor

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