Around three o’clock yesterday morning, the House of Representatives passed by a vote of 22 for/ten against, the Municipal Corporations (Amendment) Bill, which seeks to introduce a system of proportional representation (PR) in the selection of aldermen for Local Government bodies.
The People’s National Movement (PNM) did not support the measure, while Independent Liberal Party leader Jack Warner and St Joseph MP Herbert Volney were absent.
The bill, seen as representing the beginnings of a major constitutional shift in the voting arrangements, required a simple majority, however.
It goes to the Senate for debate on Tuesday.
In winding up the debate at 2.15 a.m. at Tower D of the International Waterfront Centre, Wrightson Road, Port of Spain, Works Minister Suruj Rambachan (who piloted the measure because he held the Local Government portfolio up until last Thursday), chastised the PNM for not introducing one single reform measure to local government in its last stint in government (2001 to 2010). By contrast, the People’s Partnership Government was introducing proportional representation—“something has been avoided by the PNM”—in the selection of aldermen, he said. He noted that former PNM leader Dr Eric Williams had described PR as a dagger in the heart of the PNM.
“They (the PNM) talk about reforms, but they brought none whatsoever,” Rambachan stated.
In fact, Rambachan said the PNM “hid from the electorate under the guise of local government reform” and postponed the local government elections three consecutive times between 2008 and 2010.
In calling the local government elections when they are due, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar had shown her mettle as a leader who was prepared to take a decision which might be inimical to her political interest but beneficial to the country as a whole, the Works Minister declared. “That is leadership in action,” he said. “Integrity is when you close the gap between what you promise and what you do. And the Prime Minister has closed that gap,” he said. “That is leadership in action!” he asserted.
Rambachan said the Elections and Boundaries Commission had indicated it would be ready to implement the system of PR with respect to the choice of aldermen. He accused the Opposition PNM of casting aspersions on the integrity of the EBC and of suggesting the commission would be compromised under the new system.
Earlier in the sitting, Congress of the People (COP) leader and Legal Affairs Minister Prakash Ramadhar said the darkness which covered the nation—where government after government spoke of constitutional reform, but never put it into effect—was been lifted,
“This is the first step,” he said. “When this thing is unleashed on you (the PNM), the old statement that we would fight alone, lose alone (would be irrelevant),” he said. “Proportional representation would be part of the next general election!” he declared. “What?” PNM members chorused. “How we doing that?” they asked.
Diego Martin North East MP Colm Imbert subsequently responded that a change to the voting arrangements for the general election would require a three-fourths majority in the House of Representatives, which the Government does not have.
Ramadhar said proportional representation would provide comfort to those COP and UNC supporters in constituencies like Port of Spain South and to PNM supporters in constituencies like Caroni Central and St Augustine.
“Were we, the COP and the People’s Partnership, to have taken the view that we should leave things as they were, then the world and society would have moved forward while the politicians remain as dinosaurs, which is what the PNM wants us to be,” Ramadhar stated. He said the PNM would soon to be extinct.
Ramadhar said the PNM alleged that PR would create instability. “They want the stability of not a damn dog bark. The days for that are over,” the COP leader said.
He added that the “new electorate” wanted proportional representation.
To the PNM claim that there was no consultation on this bill, Ramadhar said proportional representation had been in the public domain and debated for more than one generation. He said the Government held 70 constitutional reform consultations dealing with constitutional issues, and at every single consultation the population said it wanted proportional representation introduced into the electoral system.
“Not true!” Imbert countered. “One person (asked for it),” the Diego Martin North East MP said.
Ramadhar reiterated “it was a fact that in every single consultation the population said the country needed proportional representation, referenda, fixed terms for the Prime Minister and fixed election dates”.
He said Government had promised to do these things in its first term. “And I say in this sacred hall that if it (constitutional reform) is not done, I would have no part (in the Government) because my purpose in the Government would have failed. And I do not wish to be a failure in Government,” he said.
Ramadhar chided Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley for failing to attend the constitution reform consultations. He said the only PNM members who attended were Diego Martin Central MP Amery Browne and Senator Pennelope Beckles-Robinson.
Also speaking in support of the measure were his COP colleagues Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan and Winston Dookeran, MP for Tunapuna. The COP had garnered 148,000 votes in the 2007 election, but failed to win a single seat in the then 36-seat Parliament.
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