AS she took the floor to make history by becoming the first Prime Minister of this country to pilot a bill in the Senate, Kamla Persad-Bissessar said yesterday she was not afraid of political suicide.
Persad-Bissessar opened proceedings at 1.30 p.m. on the debate of the contentious Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 by saying she recognised the rarity of her appearance in the Upper House for the purpose of leading a bill, and she welcomed the opportunity to have a conversation with the senators.
The nearest precedent to yesterday’s action occurred in July 2009, when then prime minister Patrick Manning contributed—but did not pilot—the Municipal Corporation (Amendment) Bill, a bill which sought to extend the life of the local government bodies for the third consecutive time and which facilitated the postponement of local government elections.
Persad-Bissessar had, about 20 minutes before, arrived at the Port of Spain Waterfront, where the Parliament is housed at Tower D, amid waves of United National Congress (UNC) supporters in yellow and Opposition People’s National Movement (PNM) supporters in red.
Opposite the chamber entrance was a smaller group whose members claimed no political affiliation, but said they feared for the democracy of the nation. Included among them was Dr Merle Hodge, former member of the Constitution Reform Committee and later a voice leading the charge that the bill poorly reflected the public consultation feedback and that the commission’s recommendations had been compromised.
In spite of sustained protest, not only from political rivals and some quarters in academia but also civil society, Persad-Bissessar yesterday stuck by the document, saying she still believed it would go a long way to taking some power away from politicians and putting it into the hands of the people.
She was referring to the three proposals of the bill that protesters and activists like Hodge have focused on—two-year term limits for Prime Ministers, right of recall for non-performing MPs and particularly the third, which Persad-Bissessar said was a consequence of the second, the run-off clause for prospective MPs.
Persad-Bissessar re-stated previous assertions in her defence of the bill that the proposals were nothing new, but had in them features of the People’s Partnership’s 2010 manifesto, which spoke of proportional representation and prime ministerial term limits.
Persad-Bissessar said she was aware many considered the run-off clause to be to her detriment, but stressed she is looking to fulfil a promise of more power to the people.
“I am of the view that I must not lead from the tower but from the battlefield,” Persad-Bissessar said.
“I am aware as I enter the political battlefield that this may be political suicide, but we can’t do business as usual. I am not afraid.”
She added her interests do not lie in her political survival, but in keeping her Government’s promise of change.
Addressing one of the most popular objections to the run-off clause—that it would eliminate small third parties from the arena and thus deny their supporters the opportunity to vote—Persad-Bissessar said her research showed small parties in Trinidad and Tobago’s political past might have benefitted from such a mechanism.
Persad-Bissessar said 47 small parties have come and gone—“obliterated” along the way—where they might have been given a chance at a longer life under the run-off clause option.
She called out the PNM on this issue, saying as she did in previous statements on the run-off that she found it “passing strange” the Opposition had taken umbrage to the clause, when its own constitution endorsed the system.
The Prime Minister said objectors to the bill were also yet to “give flesh” to their statements and explain how the run-off clause could enable one party to “steal” an election, which she called a “dangerous accusation”.
“Votes could go any which way,” Persad-Bissessar said.
Persad-Bissessar said she was “so happy”, however, the bill had ignited debate and it has shown democracy is alive and well.
She said, though, she wished some of those dissenting voices had shown themselves at the 21 public consultation fora held across the country by the Constitution Reform Committee.
On concerns raised by the Opposition that a 15-day gap could between a general election and assignment to office of a government, all to accommodate by-elections caused by the run-off clause, Persad-Bissessar said in the law of probability, a run-off in every constituency was unlikely.
Persad-Bissessar said a government would also not sit in office for five years and then attempt to “raid the Treasury” in those 15 days.
Speaking for just over an hour, Persad-Bissessar’s contribution went mostly without heckling, though some murmuring from the Opposition bench at one point prompted her to confirm with Senate Vice President James Lambert that she had his protection.
Yesterday’s start was also preceded by the swearing-in of former high commissioner to London Garvin Nicholas as a temporary senator in the absence of Food Production Minister Devant Maharaj.