It was never my intention to make a contribution on March 5th, chiefly because I had promised myself that I would have properly been prepared. This never happened , which was not surprising as my professional and personal work load has been heavier of late.
The session started a few minutes after the stipulated time of 5PM, and there were a sprinkling of the public in attendance, with the main panel in front of the audience with three supporting tables adjacent to and behind. I was diverted to one of these tables to register my name and contact information.
We were given a package that comprised of a Ministry of Legal Affairs (MLA) booklet advertising the public consultations, a hard copy of the Constitution of T&T, a questionnaire, notepad and pen. The Himalaya forum was open air, with those large portable cooling fans strategically placed for the public and panelists. The panelists were : Dr. Hamid Ghany, Justice Sebastian Ventour, Dr. Merle Hodge, Justice Amrika Tiwary-Reddy, Prakash Ramadhar and Mr. Carlos Dillon.
It opened with a warm, ebullient colloquial presentation and invitation from Penelope Spencer. This was obviously an ice breaker, as she did not telegraph the impression that she was versed with the subject at hand. This overture to the masses was lost on my person, as both the subject and the forum was not alien to me at all. Surprisingly, and in the same vein, the Master of Ceremonies or moderator turned out to be none other than Errol Fabien. So here was a deliberate attempt to corral the general populace into a contributory mood.
The clumsy introduction from Ms. Spencer gave the impression that this particular session was to be only centred around the topic of “proportional representation.” This was quickly put to rest by MC Fabien, however, and the topic prompted explanations from the panelists on proportional representation, Hamid Ghany and Prakash Ramadar being foremost. Prakash had earlier pointed to the easternmost table that was spilling over with a group attired in black, and introduced them as the MLA’s leading legal support team on the Constitutional Reform project. I used the term ‘project’ deliberately to emphasise a point later on in this commentary.
It was either Hamid or Prakash, that mentioned the French electoral system as an example of proportional representation or perhaps they were speaking of the second round of voting for the President. It is however, quite an interesting model that we should review, even if for only intellectual curiousity: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elections_in_France. An interesting aspect of the French system is the use of referendum to gain consent from the electorate for constitutional reform. Indeed, one of the members of the audience suggested the very same concept. He went further and suggested that referendum be the first amendment to the constitution, before all else.
Someone suggested that people refer to the Dennis Pantin archives in UWI for pertinent information on consitutional reform.
Vernon De Lima remarked that we have evolved to the stage where there is no limit of talent and resource such that appeals to the Privy Council are vestigial, and that the Supreme Court, not the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) be the final recourse for appellants. He also made an emotional appeal for the death penalty to be enforced.
Another noteworthy contribution suggested a bipartisan Joint Select Committee be created to oversee and approve projects that cost more than a predetermined sum, to check instances of runaway public spending.
Although Prakash had hinted at it earlier, I posed the question to him directly, for the benefit of the listeners and for my own appeasement, on whether the government had prepared a draft document in advance of the public consultation. He reiterated emphatically in the negative, and said that they wanted to go directly to the people first, without any preconception.
In critiquing organisations and institutions in public forums, I have more than once used a psychological technique to make my targets more receptive of my argument. Not for a lack of sincerity, I thanked the PP government and the panelists for this opportunity for the general public to make a contribution towards constitutional reform. I reminded the panelists, and turning towards the audience, that there are many who are under the false impression that democracy begins and ends at the ballot box. I told them that this is the farthest thing from the reality, and it is in forums like this where we can see democracy in action.
The panelists were then soundly scolded for the process that they were taking for the constitutional reform exercise. On the fly, and unprepared, I offered an alternative process. I suggested that they should have had a six months to a year of public education on the EXISTING constitution. In three phases, the first being the education, and the second being the public consultation, and concurrently, a legal professional effort. The final phase would be the commingling of the two efforts, to produce a single document comprised of sound technical structure, and incorporating the will and sentiment of the people.
Riding this momentum, I told the panelists that they should make it a priority of brainstorming a ‘Plan B.’ Simply because all of the efforts of constitutional reform in the previous regime went ‘down the road’, and the PP government may have to face a similar doom. Part or all of the efforts towards constitutional reform should preside in a non-governmental organisation, so that there would always be continuity, and that the people will not lose out as in what transpired previously. It is the people that stand to suffer from the undulating fortunes of the constitutional reform tide.
Representation. This was the 800 pound gorilla in the room. We are lesser for a civilisation because of it. This is what I hammered into the panel, and into the audience. This lay at the root of failed democracy. We the people, need to REPRESENTED in Parliament. There should be no executives / cabinet who also share the responsibilities of the constituency. Executives need to be free to execute their respective functions. If there was an examination of what lay at the root of talk of proportional representation, we will find non-functioning and incapable local government bodies. Members of “Parle”-ment who are really pompous and uncaring buffoons (I am seriously paraphrasing and exercising my creative license here). Their raison d’etre to tow their respective party line, and seek to embarrass and harass the opposing side, suffer the people. Useless is what they are.
So what we need to have is a clean separation, as much as is reasonably and pragmatically possible, between the Executive and the Legislature.
I hope the esteemed legal swarm at the easternmost panel were taking notes.
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