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New approach for constitutional reform

Separating sheep from goat
Sunday, May 20, 2012


There have been rumours, whispers and suggestions that once more the Government of Trinidad and Tobago is about to embark on reform of the Constitution. I am amused. Who will be appointed to this commission and at what cost to the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago? Will it be the anointed ones—the people whose competence know no limit, who seem to appear on every board and committee and who embrace the Internet in order to manufacture a report which will be placed on the shelves? Or will it be the loyalist of one political party or the other? Or, those people who must be favoured since they are supporters? Will it be some person or persons who can be poached from the “other side” to reflect a symbolic victory? In countries worldwide one expects that every government will at some time or the other embark on such reform, and one expects that the individuals selected to sit on this and any commission will depend primarily on political considerations. This time, however, one is encouraged by the length of time the government is actually taking to appoint such a commission and there is the hope that these appointments will be more measured and the individuals selected will be based on the criteria of knowledge in the field, expertise, experience and competence. There is also the issue of energy. Over time, there have been a number of commissions established to re-examine the Constitution and to recommend amendments where necessary. If one looks at the stature of some of the people who have served (and often without compensation as occurred with the Manning appointed commission), it is evident that not only did they have the knowledge but they also had the necessary expertise and experience as well. Perhaps, the weaknesses with these commissions, however, is that while numerous (and looking at some of these they were extremely well thought out) recommendations were made, many of these were not presented to the public and thus the majority of these recommendations to date have not been implemented.
In trying to raise the issue of constitutional reform, many ‘so-called’ or self-proclaimed political analysts focus on two major issues—namely the reform of the model of voting (some are suggesting a model of proportional representation, some a mixed model), while others focus on the proposal to move to a model of executive presidency. Another focus has been the need to introduce a Right to Recall. But, it should be recalled that a Constitution which is the guiding principle of any country is a large document with several dimensions. It establishes clear authority structures in a country, the role and responsibility of the various actors and institutions and the procedures that should be established. In any country with a written Constitution, the Constitution is supreme. Any Constitution, however, is time-bound and has been created for a particular country at a particular time. The last amendment to the Trinidad and Tobago Constitution was in 1976, when the country assumed Republican status. More than three decades have passed since the Constitution was amended and thus, it is argued that it is more than timely that the country once again re-examines the existing Constitution and suggest amendments to make it more relevant to the current environment. Perhaps, this time, in attempting to revise the Constitution, a different model may be employed. With the last attempt to revise the Constitution, emphasis was placed on what many liked to refer to as a ‘bottom up’ model which was essentially one where people in the civil society, those groups and organisations were consulted with respect to necessary amendments. 
This ‘bottom up’ approach appeared to be a dismal failure. The turnout for most of the meetings was extremely poor and the few who turned out to listen were often trying to push their own agendas, however selfish and small they may have been. Moreover, many people had little or no information on the existing Constitution and thus the views presented were often myopic. In this new round of trying to revise the Constitution, perhaps what may be necessary is a new approach. What may be necessary is to break up the Constitution in its constituent parts. Have experts in each area present to the public—after it is advertised and the various groups with a particular interest invited—what is the existing state of that specific area and then suggest what may be viable options and the outcomes of each of these options. This model is of course more difficult and it will mean that those who are to be appointed to the various commissions must indeed be the true experts in the field. In a sense it will mean separating the sheep from the goat. In other words, dissecting the Constitution into its many parts will allow for greater depth and thus may result in well thought out recommendations both on the part of the civil society and on the part of the policy makers. Like a true follower of Edmund Burke, though, it is always wise to make incremental changes rather than all encompassing and widespread revisions which have not been thought through. It would also be useful that if before embarking on a new round of constitutional reform that the commission members first acquaint themselves with the different constitutions over time and their offerings and even more recent, the recommendations of the  Manning commission. Perhaps, what may emerge, is that more funds may not be required to revise the Constitution since many of the recommendations presented may be relevant, while some areas, of course, may call for further discussion. Above all, though, appointing commission members who come with a blank slate may not be the best approach to revising the most important document in the country.



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