“Vote as you think best,” Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar said yesterday as she announced she was going to allow Government members to exercise a conscience vote on the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014.
Piloting the measure in the House of Representatives, Tower D, International Waterfront Centre, Port of Spain, Persad-Bissessar said: “I want today to indicate that I am releasing all members of the Cabinet from the doctrine of collective responsibility on this matter.”
The announcement provoked sustained desk thumping on the Government side.
“Historic! Historic!” Government MPs chorused. Political analysts yesterday said they could not recall there ever been a situation where a leader lifted the whip to allow members to vote however they wished.
The Prime Minister’s announcement came in the face of the political reality that the Congress of the People (COP), which has five MPs, has expressed serious reservations about the bill. The conscience vote would remove any appearance of a major division within the Cabinet.
She said: “When the final vote is taken on this bill all members on the Government side will not be bound by collective responsibility when recording their vote, but instead would take a conscience vote and be guided by their conscience as to whether they vote yea or nay.
“And I do this because of the very fundamental important changes we are making to enhance our democracy, and so I give all members that leverage to vote according to their consciences, rather than be bound by collective responsibility.”
She added that under the Westminster model when one breached the principle of collective responsibility of the Cabinet, one had to either resign or be fired. She said she would call for a division on the matter—something which is not required in a bill which needs a simple majority—so that members can register their support or lack thereof.
The Prime Minister also stated the bill would not bring an end to the debate on constitutional reform.
She said: “There is more to come in other bills that would require a special majority. We have spoken of referendum. The Constitution Commission has recommended that and that would be brought subsequently.
“The Commission has recommended proportional representation for the Senate. That too would be considered to be brought in another bill that requires a special majority. There have been recommendations for strengthening the office of the DPP, but again a special majority vote (is required). That too would be brought.”
She said the Constitution was a living document and must at all times serve the people of the nation. “No Government should allow rules and procedures to fossilise and fall out of step with the needs of the present,” the Prime Minister said, adding that so much had changed since 1962 and 1976.
Persad-Bissessar said all other Constitution Commissions presented proposals which came to nought —the Wooding Commission, the Hyatali Commission, the Draft of the nine Independent Senators, the Sir Ellis Clarke Draft Constitution, the Patrick Manning Roundtable.
“This Government is the first administration that had the courage to bring substantial constitutional reform,” she said.