Independent Senator Anthony Vieira yesterday called on Government to withdraw the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014.
Vieira was the last of the nine Independent Senators to speak and the seventh one to indicate opposition to the provisions of the bill.
He said he had prayed “for clarity of thought” and “for the power to bring sense and reasoning” in the debate on what was “no doubt...one of the most controversial pieces of legislation” to come to the Parliament.
Vieira said the provision for the recall of non-performing MPs was the proposal which had caused him the “greatest anxiety”.
Vieira noted that no grounds were needed for a recall application to be made to the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC).
“Once the numbers are there, the petition for recall must be initiated and to my mind such a provision may be open to abuse,” he said. “One has to question whether on balance the recall provisions will really make MPs accountable to their constituencies or whether we will be in effect emasculating them.”
He said the right of recall exists in Vancouver, Canada, and it was currently being challenged there because of the problems associated with it.
He also noted that the coalition government in the United Kingdom had promised a recall provision, but was apparently back-pedalling on this commitment after examining the disadvantages of the system.
Noting that there could be a tension between an MP’s loyalty to party and loyalty to constituency, Vieira said he could not support the provision as cast in the bill.
He cited the reasons: a) the bill does not require reasons or criteria from the petitioners for the recall;
b) the clause may be in conflict with those provisions of the Constitution for which limit the grounds for which a member shall vacate his seat;
c) the bill appears to ignore the basis principles of fairness and natural justice for the recalled MP;
d) MPs may become overly concerned with keeping the seats and refrain from acting in the public interest to avoid conflict (with constituents) or controversy;
e) the interest of the organised, dominant and wealthy may be favoured to the disadvantage of minorities, the poor and the less well organised;
f) it offends the principle of collective responsibility and undermines the effectiveness of Cabinet by rendering elected ministers vulnerable to special interest and pressure groups.
Vieira also pointed out that the bill did not state how the EBC would determine whether the petition carries the genuine signatures of the voters in the constituency.
“How would it ensure that the signatures of a large number of persons have not been forged?” he asked.
On the run-off provision, Vieira said it was more common in presidential elections and “far less common in legislative elections”.
He said in the 15-day hiatus leading up to the conduct of the supplementary poll, “opportunities would undoubtedly arise, especially in an environment such as ours, where effective electoral campaign financing laws are non-existent, for manipulation of voters, by means of corrupt practices such as bribery or cheating. And here one recalls what occurred recently when Ian Alleyne (UNC candidate) competed in the St Joseph by-election. The 22 projects in ten days referred to by Senator Faris Al Rawi”.
He said the country would also be bombarded by “tasteless but expensive media blitzes”.
And worst of all, depending on the background of the two candidates, by making appeals to ethnic and racial divisiveness, thereby increasing the potential for political instability in the lead-up to the holding of the supplementary polls,” Vieira stated.
The Independent senator also said he was concerned that the second round of election would be administratively challenging, if not impossible, for the EBC.
He said in the 2007 elections there would have been 14 run-offs.
“Can you imagine the logistics involved if the EBC has to conduct 14 run-offs next year? “ he asked.
He cited the demand on schools which are used as polling stations and the loss of school time for pupils, the demands on giving time off to employees in the public and private sector to go to vote.
“One needs to be mindful of the cost, the inconvenience and the logistics involved, all in a 15-day period,” he said.
He questioned what arrangements would be in place for special voters in the run-off poll.
Vieira said while the second poll could encourage diverse groups to coalesce and discourage vote split, the disadvantages were critical.
He said research had shown that in France the run-off poll had produced the most disproportional result of any Western democracy.
He said research also showed that one of the most serious problems with the run-off system was its implications for deeply divided society.
Saying that in the countries where it operated, it served to heighten division, Vieira stated: “That is the last thing we need in Trinidad and Tobago.”
He cited Angola, the Congo and Algeria as places where the run-off led to internal warfare.
Vieira said he was in support of proportional representation. “As the run-off process is a refinement and extension of the winner-take-all system, I cannot, whether from an ideological point of view or in all good conscience, support it,” he said.
He added that without the “’triangulation’ referred to by Senator (Dhanayshar) Mahabir (of having all parties which receive at least 20 per cent of the vote participate in the run-off poll) I am inclined to believe that the run-off system would exclude minority interest and lead to a fragmentation of our political party system and would not provide for fair and accurate representation of parties or offer fair representation for all”.
He concluded that the run-off system was “undemocratic”.
Vieira said the fixed term for the two-term Prime Minister proposal seemed eminently reasonable at first glance.
He noted that this provision existed in countries like the United States and Mexico but he also noted Singapore’s success was partly attributed to the fact that it had the same leader for three decades, which provided continuity.
Citing the case of Bill Clinton, Vieira said term limits could force out effective and experienced leaders.
He added that the world and the US would be a different place had Clinton stayed in office.
“One of the drawbacks is that good leaders might end up being replaced by persons who are less competent,” he said.
He said the jury was therefore out on this proposal.
Vieira said process was also important.
He said if people come to feel that the process is a sham then “all fall down”.
He said all parliamentarians and lawyers had an obligation to inculcate and fortify in the hearts and minds of citizens that our systems, flawed as they may be, can still work and that the integrity of the processes would not be compromised.
“It is not sufficient to just get the right result. How you get there is equally important,” he said.
Noting that there were societies where there are just two different races or religions cohabiting, there were tensions and civil unrest, with some becoming “failed states”, he wondered: “Is this the point where the seeds are sown for that to become the scenario of our future? Where the lines of division are deepened? Or is this the point where we are able to demonstrate that here....we are still able to move forward and function in a civil and joyful way?”
Vieira said that he agreed with his colleague, Ian Roach, that constitutional changes should come in an omnibus document and reform should not been proceeded on a cherry-picking basis.
He said even if the poll done for the Government which showed 45 per cent of people did not support the bill, (in contrast to another poll which said 80 per cent) 45 per cent was a significant percentage which should not be ignored.
He said the fact was that many viewed the Government’s “rush to pass the bill” with “suspicion”.
He therefore urged the Government to withdraw the bill.