Thursday, December 14, 2017

‘It’s about strengthening democracy’

Legal Affairs Minister Prakash Ramadhar chaired the Constitution Reform Committee (CRC) which conducted consultations with the people of the country on changes to the Constitution. 

While there has been an outcry and objections to the proposed amendments in the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014, Ramadhar—also the leader of the Congress of the People (COP)—has advocated for the bill, saying there should no fear in the passage of the legislation.

He shares his views in an exclusive interview today: 

In your capacity as 1. Chairman of Cabinet’s Legislative Review Committee, 2. Political Leader of the COP, and 3. MP for St Augustine, how long have you been aware of the Government’s proposal to table the Constitution Amendment Bill 2014, and what has been your role in shaping the bill?

The recommendations of the commission were in two parts which were published since December, and then there was an addendum which was completed in July and transmitted. 

The commission had to take a position on what we could achieve because we did promise in the manifesto many things in relation to Constitution reform. I had to look now at the majority requirements for things like proportional representation and referendum and so on, and it was decided by the Cabinet and the Government that we must go forward on the basis of fulfilling the promise to the nation... those issues that were taken out as the first phase of constitutional reform are those we can achieve by a simple majority without the requirement of assistance from anyone else. It is my view after 40-odd years of deliberations on constitutional reform that the country needed to see that this Government was serious about achieving it and, even if it is incremental, it is movement toward finally changing the system which we inherited.


Was it on the Government’s agenda to

bring these amendments during its tenure?

Yes, that is why I chaired the commission because there must be a political responsibility. The commission of the past did the best of work, at the end of which the country never benefited one iota. The COP promised in 2007 that we must have Constitution reform, the manifesto in 2010 reflects the Partnership intent to have delivered upon it.

We took the view it was not just going to be cosmetic consultations... there must be real consultations with an intent to deliver. 


What is the COP’s own position on the bill? Did you meet in caucus with your executive/party?

Everybody agrees that we must have constitutional reform but there is one aspect of this that has caused unnecessary contention, that is the issue of the run-off. There are many well-intended citizens that have expressed concerns about it, but there are many others who, for cheap political reasons, are demonising without explaining, without logic and without facts. 

The COP’s position and the Government position and the commission’s position has always been about strengthening democracy. What we’ve seen is that the democracy in Trinidad and Tobago has been thwarted over time where because of many different factors, minority parties or minority votes end up being the winner with the first-past-the-post system.

So the philosophy has been toward achieving proportional representation and indeed our report is clear on that. However, on a practical level we do not have now the votes required to bring proportional representation into our Constitution. That is why we had taken the process in phases... we will be bringing other legislative change that will require for larger majority that a simple one.

The PNM (People’s National Movement)has indicated that they not supporting constitutional reform, cannot assume then that PR is achievable today and therefore we had to work a mechanism that is the commission, to strengthen the democracy within the confines that we now have and therefore the issue of the run-off is very germane.

In the past for example, there are two major parties existing before—the PNM and the UNC (United National Congress)—and of course in 2007 the COP was born and the COP had the fortitude and the gumption to believe that it could rise to one of the dominant parties, which we did in terms of the popularity of the party.

But on election day even though 148,000 voted, on election night that third force went to zero in terms of that political authority that it was able to yield, and as a result of a campaign that we launched that a vote for the COP was a vote for the PNM, a lot of COP supporters who wanted the COP to take Government, being reasonably afraid of the possibility, not wanting a PNM government as an example, decided to vote UNC.

This new proposal says that if I like party X, Y, Z or whatever, I could be convinced in my vote, that I can vote for them, knowing full well that my party can win the election in any constituency or in the Government, or if it does not achieve the majority... I can vote for my party and if we win hooray, if we do not win, I’m either first in line, second in line, or third in line.

As the voter first I can decide which of the two I would give my support to in the run-off, before you never had that option, once you exhausted your vote on election day, you were out of the game, so you have a second chance to vote for either one, it could be your own party or another party.

Coalition politics is a very healthy thing for a nation because there are competing interests, so there is no dominant force in Government. We need to change that paradigm where you have a single party rule and whatever the Prime Minister says or the leadership says, everybody has to follow.


Are members of the COP executive in full

support of the bill and its proposals?

No, there is an ongoing debate on this matter. I want to herald my party’s openness in terms of our ability to discuss all sorts of issues, unlike other parties. We believe in debate and discussion on matters.


Some people have raised concerns over

the bill?

The entire nation, in one way or the other, are in support or against and because of the fear factor, that is what we are dealing with here. The same arguments were raised already in relation to proportional representation for local government elections. You were talking about whether the electorate is mature enough, we have to do our part in ensuring the maturity of that, and that is why it is important for these discussions to occur without fear.

What concerns do members of your executive have? Is it also to do with the run-off vote?

The run-off situation that it is designed to destroy third parties, I hold a very different view. The recommendation after considering all of the factors, that it is healthy for the nation. It gives you opportunities you never had before, if it is we go into issues-based politics, then negotiations and coalitions are critically important.


If members of your executive and party are concerned about the run-off vote, that means they were not consulted beforehand on this proposal?

Remember the addendum, when we took a very practical approach on what is achievable and what is not, what can we do to strengthen the democracy without proportional representation at this time? We want proportional representation, everywhere we went, PR was the top priory but under the present Constitution, I’m advised we do not have the majority, we would require PNM support for it and so not being able to achieve that what do we do, do we just lay back and say leave it as it was?

This Government says with or without the support of the Opposition, we are going to make change, people-empowering change.

These are things that people didn’t quite expect, but it is happening and probably the shock value of the reality that we brought legislation to Parliament, you know we have been criticised for taking too long and we also were criticised for rushing. So unfortunately things happen in the real world, the consultations we did not rush them, we have gone through the length and breath of Trinidad and Tobago twice, it was a people-dominated consultation.

The run-off issue, even though it may not have come from the floor, what the people were saying was that they did not want to have a minority Government, they did not want minority victories, they wanted an empowerment of the democracy.

The commission had to decide how can we achieve that in our recommendations and that is how the issue of run-off came about, so you would have the split vote fear being removed... you are equally entitled like any other party and your supporters can support you, knowing full well that they don’t have to fear there is another party they don’t want to win. And therefore if they vote for this party, it would guarantee the win of another.

If it is there is to be a run-off, you have negotiation space in relation to coalition poli­tics and issue-based politics.


If there is a three-party race and I support for example, one party that was not able to get the 50 per cent and there is the run-off vote what if I don’t want to vote for any of the remaining two? My choice lost, I am disenchanted, why force me to return to the poll?

Nobody is forcing you, democracy says that you have a right to vote, or to vote for none of the above, that is your democratic right. You talking an old paradigm. We have to look toward the future and not only to the past. We learn from the past and look toward the future. The politics of race is diminishing, and the COP proved that in 2007 because we were able to get equal votes in all of Trinidad and Tobago. What we were able to achieve in Diego Martin, we were able to get in Barrackpore. So racial voting is diminishing and what is coming to the fore now is issue-based politics, policy-based politics, and therefore that brings me to the negotiation you are entitled to have if you are not one and two, if you are the third and fourth party, if you have issues you want to put on the national agenda... you want my support, you want to guarantee you win at the run-off... talk to me so my interest will be reflected in your victory.


You think people will come out and vote on


There is something called social engineering in a way and you have to create the facility for the population to start understanding that. The COP and the Partnership are a prime example of issue-based politics . There are many persons who would not have supported the COP or the UNC or any of the partners individually, but having come together you may find this attractive in one party or that in another and they came and voted in totally of the thing.


Do you think the people are politically mature now to accept this new paradigm you are


That is where the challenge arises now in this discussion in the public space, where the demonising of something good but the intent of retaining the past, there are many well-meaning citizens who have legitimate concerns and we have to answer them, but there are many others who are creating a hysteria. Look at what happened in local government elections when we introduced proportional representation... the same arguments came, thief in the night, it will steal the election and everything else. The election came, it wasn’t necessarily to the benefit of the Partnership, but it was to the benefit of the democracy. For the first time you could help decide who your aldermen were. The same arguments come now on this run-off, the fear factor that has been put in the public.


Political analysts as well as your former colleague Jack Warner share the view that the run-off will destroy third forces in the country. Are you not concerned that the COP would be affected by the run-off vote?

There is nothing called a second force or third force after election night. You either win or your lose. Is that healthy for the democracy? That is the first question you must answer. Does this new proposal give an option that improves the democracy? You can’t win a constituency with a minority vote, you have 20 per cent or 30 per cent of the vote, there is 70 per cent voting against you, but you win because there is a split. Nobody has more than your 30 per cent, you may have 28 per cent and you lose. Is that a healthy thing? The answer must be no. 

If it is we want to have democracy which is a true majority taking power, then this is an improvement on the old system, so those who say it is designed to destroy third parties and so on are those who are not willing to work to gain the favour of the electorate. They want an easy fit by splitting and shifting because the vote is so split that you come in. That is the opportunity they want, minority empowerment, and that is wrong. We believe you must earn your right in the politics to say I have a majority.


You said the people expressed they did not want a minority government and that came from the floor. If the commission came up with the run-off vote, why not go back to the people and consult them on this?

How much of that? There comes a time, when there is cut off and time was running out on us. As I make the point, people are saying why you bring it into your fifth year? Well it is because we took the time to consult. We did not rush the thing, but now we had to go.


The run- off vote was the brainchild of the commission?

Yes, it is in the report.

Why then is Merle Hodge raising objections to it?

Read what she says. It is a reflection based on the criticisms on some of the arguments. That is the point. You could decide something, but you are entitled to have second thoughts on it. I admire and appreciate Merle. She’s entitled to those second thoughts, but we need to analyse the arguments and see where it is motivated from a genuine concern, whether it is generated from the unknown and that is the problem we are faced with. Any change in the country is resisted and we see it all levels. Change everybody talks about it but nobody engages it. This Government of which I am in part insists that the changes we promised must come.


Does it make sense to change anything when there is so much fear, as you say, over these changes?

I am reminded, it was Roosevelt who said that the only thing we must fear is fear itself. Because fear is a most powerful weapon against improvement... if it was that the first men who ventured into space were ruled by fear, we would not have gone there nor would Columbus have left his shores in search of a new world.

Fear must never, ever rule your decision. If you have genuine concerns, we must analyse them and that is why it is important for the discussions to go but at the end of it, action must be taken. Understand that there is a leadership role, you know there is the old saying that too much analysis leads to paralys­is, you end up doing nothing. This Government cannot afford to do nothing on constitutional reform. It is one of our promises on Page 18 of our manifesto, so therefore sometimes you have to bite the bullet and go forward.


Is that what you going to do with respect to concerns from your own party? Are you going to try and allay their fears or bite the bullet and go forward?

I am the chairman of this commission, I recommended it, I supported it in the Cabinet, I have responsibilities there, it is my duty on Sunday to do the best that I can to allay the fears of my party, and to take on board their views and considerations.

What about you own St Augustine constituency? Did you consult your constituents on this?

We had public consultations, so in terms of the constituency itself, no. But I have spoken to many persons from the constituency, not in a formal way, who are supportive and commend the position of the Government in going forward with constitutional reform.

Do you share Dr Merle Hodge’s view that the run-off mechanism “directly contradicts the principle of proportional representation which is a central recom­mendation of the CRC Report”? 

She’s entitled to her view. I say in the environment where proportional representation is not now available to us because of what the PNM has said and it will come as a bill and the country will see who supports it and who does not. What do we do in the circumstance, just leave it and do nothing to strengthen the democracy? We had by increment or otherwise to improve on the democracy in the country.

As far as you are aware, what are the views of the other political parties within the People’s Partnership?

I have not had discussions with the other leaders. That is a matter the Prime Minister may have had discussion with. She did come to the Cabinet with it and parties are represented there, and there was agreement in the Cabinet.

On Monday, do you think all Government members are going to vote in favour? Do you suspect or expect persons may not?

Let me not speculate. I think all that is required is 14 votes.


There is no backing down on the Constitution (Amendment) Bill?

This Government has shown in the past that it is always willing to listen. The Prime Minister has shown that. What I can say? I can at this point in time not really see any tremendous argument for us preventing constitutional reform from going forward.

What about the concerns raised by Dr Rowley on the bill?

We have seen over and over in the Parliament that many of the things which are good for the country, the PNM has not supported. I am not surprised Mr Rowley wishes us to not fulfil a promise so that they could go on the campaign trail and say they promised constitutional reform but did not deliver. We and I as leader of the COP says no, a promise in a manifesto must be delivered on, especially when we took a position to lay our manifesto in the Parliament as Government policy, so I am not surprised. They have never stopped their campaign to bring this Government down before the elections... If we were to listen to those who wish to see the end of us, then we will see the end of us.


The turnout at the COP leadership elections this year was very poor. With a run-off vote proposal a party will have to work the ground to ensure its supporters come out and vote, which will be crucial to the COP survival. Do you think there is enough time for the COP to get supporters at the polls?

We need to work to real hard and real fast. That is something we have shown in the past, we may be down but nobody was able to knock the COP out. It is about a commitment to what you believe in and a commitment to work that matters, and I say that the COP has never taken the easy way of hoping that a split flaw in the electoral system to win. We’ve always tried to earn our space by the work and commitment to policies and by our activists politics.


What do you have to say to the average man on the street who may think these amendments to the Constitution are an attempt by the People’s Partnership to stay in power and steal the elections?

How could one steal an election once you are given the right to vote and there is no interference with the actual ballot? This is about the people choosing, one way or the other, and creating more options and opportunities for the people. So to say it is about stealing the election, I would like somebody to explain what does that mean.

It is easy to say it, but what is happening in the society is that we are giddy with all sorts of statements that very few of us take the time to understand and analyse what is being said. I do not believe in anybody stealing an election. The way it can be done is if you interfere with the actual ballot. With respect to the fixed terms, Trinidad and Tobago, as the Prime Minister reminded us, will be the first Commonwealth country in the history of Westminster system to do so.

As small as we are, we must not be afraid of being pioneers. Trinidad and Tobago is a great nation and we have to take off the shackles that we are limited in some way and that has been the burden of the politics of the past—it oppresses change, it controls everything. There are gatekeepers who do not wish to see any improvement, and we need to tell Trinidad and Tobago—be confident in yourself.