Deception, psychologists tell us, ranges from outright lies to omissions, misdirection, obfuscation, camouflage and “strategic ambiguity”.
This administration seems to prefer misdirection as its method. Just as the infamous Section 34 was wrapped within legislation which parliamentarians on both sides and the Independent senators could support, so too this run-off election proposal to achieve “majority” MPs has been packaged with proposals — term limits for the Prime Minister and recall of MPs — which some people (who have not thought deeply about them) might find unobjectionable. In fact both of these “unobjectionable” proposals are at best facile, and the run-off proposal, the sting in the tail, the coral snake, is positively dangerous!
In the Westminster system which we practise and (as Anil Roberts demonstrated) we do not understand very well, the Prime Minister is first an MP representing a constituency and then, as leader of his party, the prime minister.
Prime Ministers are not directly elected by all the people. Whether an individual endures as political leader of his party and as prime minister is a matter for the party.
It was the Conservative Party which ended the reign of Thatcher as prime minister. When the electorate has had enough of a party, or the party has had enough of its leader, then the prime minister will be changed. If she is as wonderful as her ministers acclaim, why shouldn’t we keep this Prime Minister until whenever?
The recall proposal is also facile. Recalling an MP only in the fourth year and presumably for nonperformance raises questions about an MP’s ability, especially in opposition, to deliver for his constituency when the government controls the purse strings and the regional corporations may be ineffective. And what if a sitting Prime Minister is successfully recalled? Doesn’t the government fall? And what is the new MP expected to accomplish in the remaining 18 months? Shouldn’t we recall MPs at any time for misbehaviour as was proposed and now shelved in the UK? The list of questions goes on.
But it is the run-off proposal that is the coral snake! First, it does not produce a “majority MP”; it produces an MP elected by a majority of those “present and voting”, which is of course not the same thing. At any election, as many as one third of the electors may not vote through old age, youthful unconcern, apathy, or to register a “None of The Above” protest. This “majority” MP may also really be the candidate of the least objectionable party, not the most desirable.
Second, a run-off poll could produce a perverse outcome. Assume 20,000 electors vote - 9,000 for Party A, 8,000 for Party B and 3,000 for Party C. The Party A candidate would have been elected on the FPTP system as a “minority MP”. In the run-off, if fewer electors vote, say 17,000, and most of the Party C electors now vote for the Party B candidate, the result is reversed.
We will have a “majority MP” even though the Party B winner could actually get fewer votes in the run-off than the Party A winner obtained under the first poll because his supporters did not turn out through intimidation, bribery or election fatigue.
This is apart from the perversity of asking electors to vote for a candidate and a party they had rejected two weeks before!
Third parties would be neutered in this system and their supporters open to bribery and blandishments. The COP, already fractured, would be wiped out, as those COP members more inclined to the UNC would rightly consider that there is no point in voting twice and, holding their noses, settle for the UNC. Similarly for those inclined to the PNM. The run-off proposal is therefore a dagger in the heart of the COP, renders irrelevant the NJAC and the MSJ, and will cause the ILP to be stillborn. Did the COP members of the Cabinet vote for their political suicide? Or do they believe that its candidates can actually win in straight fights in certain constituencies against the PNM or the UNC?
Fourth, the run-off proposal will promote a two-party contest mainly along tribal lines, discarding ideology, policy, programme and “new politics” from the consideration of the electorate in its choice of government. One might also ask: what became of the “coalition politics” and the concomitant need for “consensus-building” touted by the Constitution Reform Committee? This is a committee which submitted just three weeks ago an “addendum” to its report advocating run-off polls and which proposal appears in the Constitution Amendment Bill less than two weeks later! No wonder Merle Hodge is flabbergasted!
The real obscenity of the proposed constitution amendment is that it has been brought, like Section 34 and its proclamation, by stratagem and duplicity. The objectives in the timing and haste have been to escape the attention of a public, media and commentators who are all in vacation mode, to minimise debate and discussion on the merits of the proposals, and to use the “simple majority” loophole in the structure of the Constitution to ram the amendment through. Opposition MPs and independent senators would have made their plans for vacation, some no doubt overseas. It would be interesting to know whether all Government MPs were instructed not to proceed on leave.
And finally: coming after Section 34, the scandalous Retirement Allowances legislation, and the egregious amendment to the Municipal Corporations Act just before those elections, what manner of leadership would calculatedly seek to amend the Constitution, the fundamental law of the land, by a simple majority while Parliament was due to be on vacation? What kind of amorality does this conduct evince?
In such contempt are we held that they could behave in this way, time after time?
And they would like us to believe that yet more urination on our heads is only the rain of promised constitutional reform bringing “power to the people”!
Dr Terrence Farrell is a former
deputy Central Bank governor and former chief executive of One Caribbean Media Ltd, parent company of the Trinidad Express Newspapers.