On the other side of the discussion on the overwhelming power held by the prime minister, who has effective control over the Executive and the Parliament, is the issue of whether we want to create a chief executive (prime minister) who is hamstrung, becomes a prisoner of the President of the Republic, the Parliament and the electorate, the latter by means of the right to recall.
The present imbroglio in the US Parliament between a President and particularly a Congress which he does not control is an example of one consequence of tying up the PM with cable wire. However, what the effective separation of powers does in the system is to make the President accountable: he has to collaborate with the other elements of the elected legislature; there is no automatic passage of legislation as in our model.
Indeed the President cannot be assured of total support even from among Democrats; the political culture is strong and representatives are conscious of their support base and not beholden to their political leader for handing them a “safe seat” and a “wuk” in the Cabinet. This explanation of the separation of powers is not advocacy for the executive presidency as in the US.
We have to work out our own best possibility and not attempt to fudge off other political cultures. In the British-type model of Parliament operated here, one of the factors absent is a political culture that is open, that has strong currents of integrity sweeping it upriver, and a range of conventions, the breaking of which will be frowned upon and generally not accepted by the polity.
In T&T no such culture exists; anything goes. When President Arthur NR Robinson felt that Prime Minister Basdeo Panday was breaching a convention by wanting to appoint losing candidates to ministerial positions, he refused to appoint to the Senate losing candidates of the United National Congress (UNC). He had to relent eventually as the Constitution gave the power to the PM to make cabinet appointments. What President Robinson achieved was to bring to the attention of the population this departure from the norm.
Another example of the effective hold the Prime Minister has on power is through the selection/election of the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate. The constitution gives the power to the Prime Minister to have the officers of the Parliament elected. From Arnold Thomasos to Wade Mark, the speakers have been either full-fledged members of the ruling party or known supporters of the party elected.
Hector McClean was appointed/elected to the Speaker’s chair having lost the Tunapuna constituency on a UNC ticket. And having defected from the opposition PNM in 1997, Rupert Griffith was selected/elected Speaker, not having contested the election in 2000. These are further examples of the overweening powers of the Prime Minister.
Has the exercise of such power by prime ministers been a problem in the system, therefore qualifying for attention in an exercise to rehabilitate and transform our constitution? It surely has in that every opposition party has perceived and presented to the national community the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate as tools of the Government, placed there to carry forward the agenda of the party in power.
This has led to much rancour and distortion in the conduct of the business of the Parliament, especially in the House of Representatives. Obviously in such conditions of distrust and perceived bias the legislature cannot function at an optimum level. Nizam Mohammed (1986-1991) was a winning candidate of the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) with his base in Panday’s United Labour Front (ULF).
When conflict between Prime Minister Robinson and Panday arose, the latter was thrown out of the Government. Speaker Mohammed was perceived to be on the side of the ULF, once ordering Prime Minister Robinson in a most unceremonious manner to “take your seat.” In the instance of the PNM selected/elected, Speaker Occah Seapaul was perceived to have changed her party allegiance when Prime Minister Manning fired her brother, Ralph Maraj, from his ministerial post.
The conflict reached the point where Manning placed the Speaker under house arrest, as he believed she was on course to suspending PNM MPs to convert it into a minority Government and so make it vulnerable to a no-confidence motion. The point of all of this is to explore whether new mechanisms need to be created to elect/select someone truly independent of the parties as Speaker of the House of Representatives and as President of the Senate, the latter having further implications for the office of the President of the Republic.
It could surely bring greater balance and reason to the debates and assist to more closely approximate the application of the doctrine of the separation of powers between the Executive and the Parliament. These are issues for the national discussion on the constitution reform exercise; they bedevil the Parliament and stand in the way of the evolution of a true parliamentary democracy.
• To be continued.