reform proposal: Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar holds up a copy of the People’s Partnership manifesto at the fifth session of the Lower House, International Waterfront Centre, Port of Spain, while delivering a statement on constitutional reform yesterday. —Photo: STEPHEN DOOBAY

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Power to the people

Constitutional amendments propose...

 Extract of the statement on constitutional reform delivered by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar at yesterday’s sitting of Parliament.

A Constitution Amendment Bill 2014, Mr Speaker, is to be introduced today, which will propose a term limit for the office of the Prime Minister, a recall provision and a run-off poll in elections for the House of Representatives.

These measures, Mr Speaker, require only a simple majority.

Further, I will in the near future, lay a Bill to fix the dates of Parliaments so the dates for general elections will be known.

Such a Bill will require a special majority.

REFORM DETAILS

The reform details, Mr Speaker:

1) Term limits for the Prime Minister.

In our present proposals there is a simple amendment which prevents the president from offering the prime ministership to anyone who has served for two full terms or at least ten years and six month, which is the two constitutional terms.

Once a prime minister has served for a period of ten years and six months (five years being the normal five-year life of a Parliament and the subsequent 90-day period by which general elections must be held).

We are of the view, Mr Speaker, that fossilised leadership, which entrenches itself via manipulation and control of party politics, is an anathema to the principles of democracy and growth.

We have had our fair share of leaders who continued to rule and refused to give way even though it was obvious the time for change had come.

This can suffocate new talent and stifle a democracy. 

THE US SYSTEM VS WESTMINSTER

The two-term limit provision is a very important feature to give power to the people and for a powerful democracy. And so, Mr Speaker, the provisions will be contained in the bill so I will not spend time to read the exact wording of those provisions.

But I would want to say that, whilst American presidents leave office with dignity and grace, Westminster prime ministers cling to power to the very end and are often forced out of office in indignity and disgrace. These were the words I read long ago in an article by Prof Selwyn Ryan.

And so, whilst American presidents leave, Mr Speaker, there is empirical evidence to suggest that this may well be true.

Some 91 countries worldwide, Mr Speaker, have term limits of two terms for their heads of government.

We are seeking to become country number 92 with term limits for the prime minister.

BENEFITS OF TERM LIMITS

There are many benefits for this Mr Speaker, and in the debate, we will spend more time given the restraints of the new Standing Orders.

We will just mention the second provision contained in the bill – The Right of Recall, Mr Speaker.

2) RIGHT OF RECALL

This amendment would create the ability to recall individual members of the House after the expiration of three years from the date of election.

The right of recall is a term used to describe a process whereby the electorate can petition to trigger a vote between scheduled elections on the suitability of an existing elected representative to continue in office.

This forms part of the systems of government at different levels in several countries including Canada, the United States, Switzerland, Philippines and Venezuela.

PROCEDURE FOR RECALL

Again, the bill would lay out the procedure for that recall. And, there are several benefits for the recall.

BENEFITS OF RECALL PROVISION

This again, Mr Speaker, is to give us a stronger democracy, a stronger connection between elected representatives and the electorate.

And, of course, Mr Speaker, greater representation at the parliamentary level.

EXPANDING THE RIGHT OF RECALL

Thirdly, we seek to expand the existing right of recall in the Constitution— You will recall Section 49 A, which is a right of recall but it is only within the hands of the leader of a party. It was exercised in the case of St Joseph.

What we are seeking to do is to expand that right of recall to place the power in the hands of the people and the people of the country will be the ones to trigger recall of an MP.

BOLD STEP

The right of recall, Mr Speaker, does not yet exist at Westminster and so this is a very bold step.

It may well be that Trinidad and Tobago may lead the way for Westminster because we would be the first Westminster-style democracy that will be adopting the right of recall.

Indeed in the Queen’s speech June 4th, 2014 she stated that her government will introduce legislation on the recall of members of Parliament.

So we shall be the first of the 52 Commonwealth countries.

SECOND BALLOT RUN-OFF VOTING

The third provision is for Second Ballot Run-off Voting.

Section 46 (1) of our Constitution states that “the House of Representatives shall consist of members who shall be elected in the manner provided by Parliament”.

This means that Parliament is vested with the authority to provide for the manner by which members are to be elected to this Honourable House.

I wish to change the way we elect our members to strengthen our democracy in a way that makes the power of the people supreme.  

Recall and run-off polls are clearly linked.

The run-off is often viewed as a corollary of the right of recall as an MP who is elected with less than 50 per cent of the votes cast is obviously immediately vulnerable to a recall.

Such polls, it can be noted, are widely used in countries with substantial democratic traditions including France, Switzerland, Argentina, Venezuela, The Philippines, Taiwan and South Korea.

A run-off poll is proposed so that each member of the House of Representatives will only become such a member if he obtains more than 50 per cent of the votes cast in a constituency.

This means that where, on a first poll at an election that is not achieved, a second poll will within 15 days be held between the top two candidates.

This will place greater emphasis on the quality of the candidates selected as the question in the run-off will be “which of these two candidates will better serve me and my constituency?”

In such a system, the voices of the minority would be respected even as effect is given to the will of the majority and, every single vote would matter and count as the possibility of voting a second time will breathe new life and meaning into the democratic process.

NO MINORITY MP

This measure reaffirms democracy and ensures that the balance of power is always tipped in favour of the people, not the Government.

Over the years, we have seen so many candidates get elected to this House on the basis of winning less than 50 per cent of the votes cast.

It would be unfair to future candidates who will be elected and who will now come under the revised constitutional provisions for being recalled by their constituents that they should start their term of office as MPs on the basis of being minority winners.

That will only serve to strengthen any persons who may wish to use the revised recall process for ulterior motives.

It is necessary to protect against this by having all MPs elected on a majority basis.

Further, because of its effectiveness in defining democracy and securing the rights of people over the rights of politicians, the United National Congress will also be considering the adoption of this process into its constitution, subject of course to the agreement of the membership.

FIXED DATE FOR ELECTIONS

Mr Speaker, hitherto, the Prime Minister has been subject to no limit on her term of office and no particular constraints have been put on her ability to advise the President to dissolve Parliament and set a date for general elections.

The Commission has recommended that the date for general elections be fixed.

It is therefore proposed that the life of a Parliament should ordinarily be fixed at five years.

This will effectively fix the date for the holding of general elections.

Long gone would be the days of silly boasts and taunts about leaders “having the date in their back pocket’’. 

This provides clarity for the population at large and enhances the ability to participate in our democratic life, for all will know the electoral timetable.

This will enable all participants in the political life of Trinidad and Tobago to have the certainty needed to take a full and fair part in a participatory democracy.

Furthermore, the role, Mr Speaker, of the House of Representatives and the Senate is enhanced because the influence of the executive over Parliament is lessened.

I am sure, Mr Speaker, that all members of this Honourable House and the Senate welcome anything which strengthens Parliament.

It is my intention to lay a bill with this reform shortly.

 

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