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Population must take charge of constitution reform

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The historical evidence of constitution-making and changing in T&T is quite clear: government/s of the day, have fashioned and re-fashioned the constitution to entrench themselves and tribe in power.

In 1976 Prime Minister Eric Williams, aggrieved and perhaps affronted that Sir Hugh Wooding and his commissioners would seek to “reduce the PNM majorities” with the proposal for Proportional Representation to replace the first past the post system, threw out the draft upon which there was much consultation and passed his own Republican Constitution in a Parliament he controlled.  

In 2014, by simple majority, the People’s Partnership, United National Congress-dominated government, has, without consultation with anyone on the runoff measure, inserted into the Constitution Amendment Bill this completely new method of electing MPs to the House of Representatives.

My suspicion is that the decision-making oligarchy in the government must have been persuaded by simulated data from recent elections which show that in one-on-one UNC-PNM runoff polls, the Prime Minister will successfully beseech her tribal supporters not to split the vote and so give the UNC victory in the majority of the marginals.

In opposition, parties have railed against the almost total power given to the Prime Minister and the Executive by the constitution. In office however, those said parties have deliberately ignored the need for transformation of the constitution content to exercise the all-consuming power over the Parliament, polity, economy and society.  

If the society is to construct a democracy in which people participate meaningfully in decision-making, not merely returning to the voting booth for five additional seconds, the population must take charge of the constitution reform exercise to nurture into existence an emerging political culture where people hold the power.

In this respect, we need to broaden the doctrine of the separation of powers to require that the balance of power over constitution-making be placed in the hands of the people and not left with the Executive. Think of the absurdity it would be if players in any international sport were allowed to make the rules and regulations of play.

Faced with an illegitimate Constitution Amendment Bill a new and democratic process must be constructed to reform the 1976 Constitution; it must be a process which will produce a constitution that has credibility. Here is a process which could have some merit.
• The President of the Republic should establish a team of independents chaired by and including outstanding citizens who will not be intimidated by power, will not succumb to blandishments, not adopt partisan political behaviours and be convinced that the power of constitution-making must be in the hands of the people.
• The Commission must be representative of interest and community groups across the society; no room for personal presidential choices; no members of existing political parties will qualify for membership on the Commission.
• The first task of the Commission will be to collect and assimilate all the existing constitutional drafts into a working document. Out of the exercise, the Commission must put out a document for public information and discussion.
• The Commission must then meet and dialogue with the national community on the proposals in the various drafts and on new ones stimulated by the information and communications exercise.
• All political parties, with none having any privileged position at the discussion table, would be required to put out their position papers and argue for their proposals at the public fora.
• The Commission will have the responsibility to distill the ideas and return them to the national community in second and third rounds of consultations.
• The sittings of the Commission must all carried on the electronic media, streamed live and be inactive with the audiences on social media. Rebroadcasts at differing times of day and night to allow all audiences to participate would be a requirement.
• The Commission must have full-time staff and a dynamic communications secretariat to constantly and continuously interact with the public on its proposals and views.
• After three rounds of interaction between the Commission and the public, the Commission will then be required to develop a final draft which is then sent to the President for tabling in the Parliament.
• Two rounds of full debate by the Parliament with all members having the right to their individual and independent positions should then produce a document for another and final round of debate and discussion with the population before a document is put forward for a referendum by the people.
• Having gone through such a process the draft constitution must then be passed by the Parliament into law. Any political party/parties attempting to offer spurious and disruptive objections would be exposed to aggravated public opinion.
• A time frame for the process must be stipulated to allow discussion to run its course. The Commission must be funded by the Parliament and must account for expenditures.
• All documentation (and there can be no exceptions) developed in the reform exercise would be deemed public information and must be published and made available electronically.
This columnist is certain that the process as outlined can be considerably widened and strengthened.


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