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CRUCIAL VOTE

Govt looks for support from four Independents

By Ria Taitt Political Editor

All eyes will be on the Senate today, particularly the independent senators, as that House debates the Defence Amendment bill—now renamed the Miscellaneous Provisions (Defence and Police Complaints) Bill 2013.
There has been much debate within the society about the measure which seeks to give police powers to soldiers.
The bill requires a three-fifths majority, which means Government (which has 15 votes) must get the support of at least four independent senators.
Speaking to the Express yesterday, Independent Senator Subhas Ramkhelawan said he had not made up his mind whether or not to support the measure because he wanted to hear the arguments for and against it, which would be ventilated in the Senate today.
“What I would say, though, is that one of my concerns at the outset was the reporting of the Chief of Defence Staff to the political figure, in the person of the Minister of National Security (Jack Warner). And that matter has been addressed somewhat (by amendments) and would assuage some of my real concerns of mixing the reporting relationships. But I think further clarity would have to be forthcoming in that area,” he said.
Ramkhelawan pointed out that it has been the Senate, more often than not, that has brought to bear a number of amendments that may not have been picked up in the House of Representatives.
He said once key areas of concern are addressed, then the whole question of how he would vote, would be decided.
Asked whether the independents had caucused on this issue, he said: “As you know independent senators do not caucus... We consult each other from time to time, share views and so on, but we never caucus.”
On whether Government had approached independents for their support, he said it has happened before where members of the Government would seek to find out what the views of a particular independent senator are on a measure.
“And that is all part of the process,” he said, adding that he did not think there was any initiative on the part of the Government to speak to independent senators as a group.
Government leader in the Senate Ganga Singh said he saw no reason why the Defence Amendment bill should not get the requisite number of votes.
“It is a matter of public policy and it is in the public interest,” he said in a telephone interview yesterday.
Told a number of groups were against the measure, he said: “And there has been significant support for the bill from the public, too.”
He said Government had not sought to privately persuade independent senators.
“It is a matter for them to do their duty as they see fit,” Singh said.
He, however, said Government did not approach anything with a closed mind and would listen to any “appropriate suggestions”.
“We have (always) conducted ourselves in that way,” he added.
Opposition Senator Fitzgerald Hinds said he was anticipating, hoping and praying Government finds it impossible to pass “that bad and unnecessary piece of legislation”.
He said based on the configuration of the Senate, the Government would be “going after the support of the independent senators”.
“But from what I have seen so far, in this and the last session, the independent senators are quite capable of analysing material in front of them, taking into account as well public sentiment. And on the basis of these factors, I expect that the Government would have some difficulty,” Hinds stated in a telephone interview yesterday.
He said the People’s National Movement (PNM) team would present a firm opposition to the measure using facts, issues, the Constitution and the law “to demonstrate that the legislation is not warranted or justified in a society that has proper respect for the rights of the individuals and adheres to the principles of democracy”.
He said the PNM would also demonstrate the legislation would not solve the problem that Government is wanting to solve. “We hope that the independent senators would be persuaded by these arguments,” he said.
Civil society organisations such as the Federation of Independent Trade Unions and Non-Governmental Organisations (Fitun) and Fixin’ T&T are calling on the independent senators not to support the measure.
Independent Senators Helen Drayton and Dr Lennox Bernard said they did not feel pressured one way or the other in formulating their position on the bill. Drayton said she normally scrutinises a bill carefully, does her research and listens to the views presented in the Senate before making a decision.
“It is helpful when civil society makes its voice heard,” Drayton said in a previous telephone interview.
Bernard said this was a crucial piece of legislation.
“We have never been a war-mongering country. We have never seen military forces in a big way controlling anything, except for those moments where we have some insurgency. So it is right for us to investigate it (the bill) properly as we look down the road to the next 50 years,” he had said in a previous interview.
He too welcomed the divergent views expressed by the various civil society groups on the legislation.
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