Sunday, February 25, 2018

Senate to the rescue again


Mark Fraser

 As I watched the debate on the Constitution (Amendment) Bill in the House of Representatives (the House), I became convinced that our system of governance is not serving us well. 

I was confirmed in this view when, after the vote, it occurred to me that I had just witnessed 23 persons take the first step in changing our Constitution on an absolutely fundamental electoral procedure—the way we elect our representatives—without first consulting us the electorate of over one million persons. (It is a matter of fact, not conjecture, that the proposal to have “run-off voting” was not discussed at any of the consultations held by Constitution Review Commission.) 

How could 23 persons change how we elect our representatives, without consulting us? Well, the Attorney General has explained that he consulted international constitutional experts and they advised him that under our existing Constitution, a simple majority was all that is required for passage of the Bill. And this view has been expressed also by the head of the Elections and Boundaries Commission among other eminent persons in Trinidad.

What this means therefore is that so long as there is a quorum in the House, the Government can pass any piece of legislation to change how our electoral system works! What an alarming thought! And, if we don’t like it, too bad for us because under our “democracy” the Government has a majority and therefore has the authority! Indeed the political leader of the Congress of the People, a coalition partner, was very proud to proclaim that the passage of the Bill “improves” democracy in our country!

It is beyond me how a blatantly anti-democratic process can have the effect of strengthening the very democracy it has undermined by failing to even try to hear the views of the people. And moreover, this Government that is basing the promotion of the Constitution Amendment Bill on the need to strengthen our democracy, the primacy of the majority and the need for more than 50 per cent voter support in elections, is itself a minority government! It did not represent 504,582 electors or 49 per cent of the electorate when it came into power in 2010. And, since then it lost the Chaguanas West and St Joseph seats, and one of its coalition partners was wiped out in the Tobago elections. As a consequence, for some time now this Government has the support of less than 50 per cent of the electorate! Notwithstanding this fact it is seeking to change the Constitution —without consulting the people. It is clear that this course of action has no legitimacy. But, our existing Governance structure, as provided for in the Constitution permits it to happen. As a consequence we are at an all too familiar pass for the second time in two months. We have to depend on the Senate to reign in the Government. 

Please senators, tell the Government that on a matter of such fundamental importance for the good governance of the country, the people must be consulted! That is all that is needed. 

The Government must give us the people time and space to air our views on the proposed changes to the Constitution. That will be true democracy. Railroading a fundamental piece of legislation through the Parliament simply because the Government has a majority in the House is not true democracy.

And when this is all over, the Constitution must be amended to ensure that no Government can ever again try to do what this one is, on the basis of a simple majority in Parliament.

Ashton S Brereton

Champs Fleurs