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Further Constitutional Reform
As the constitutional reform exercise draws nearer, based on comments being made by the Minister of Legal Affairs, Prakash Ramadhar, I am continuing a discourse started last week on some of the issues that may arise during the process. This week, the focus is on the possible reform of the structure of the Parliament.
There has been some discourse in the public domain on the question of possibly changing the electoral system from the first past-the-post model to a system of proportional representation.
As indicated last week, this would likely entail the abolition of geographical constituencies as we know them and a replacement with party representatives who may be chosen off a list in proportion to votes cast at an election. As is usually the case in proportional representation systems, any vacancies that arise after one election and before another is held, will normally be filled from the unexpired portion of each party’s list that was used at the previous general election.
The Wooding Constitution Commission in their 1974 report opted for a mixed system of retaining the geographical constituencies elected on the first past-the-post system and joined it with a list system based on proportional representation.
In doing this, the Wooding Commission recommended the abolition of the Senate and the creation of a unicameral or single-chamber Parliament in which both geographically-elected MPs and party list representatives of political parties would sit together.
An alternative to that approach would be to consider retaining the existing system of election for the House of Representatives and using the votes cast for those representatives as the basis for allocating seats in the Senate in proportion to those votes cast for the MPs. This proposal would make the Senate a creature of the will of the electorate.
The main consideration in altering the political culture of the Parliament in this way would be whether or not to retain or abolish the independent senators. These issues would have to be discussed during the public consultation process with civil society.
Of course, consideration can also be given to the proposals that were made for the House of Lords in 1918 by the Committee under the chairmanship of Viscount Bryce, who had recommended fundamental reforms for the House of Lords that were never implemented.
The Bryce proposals were, in fact, modified and exported and versions of the proposals found their way into the 1921 Senate in Malta, the Government of India Act 1935, and the Ceylon Constitution Order-in-Council 1946. While the Maltese Senate was subsequently abolished in 1936, the other second chambers continued.
The Bryce proposals essentially involved the indirect election of members of the House of Lords by members of the House of Commons using a system of proportional representation based on the single transferable vote for 246 members, while another 81 members were to be chosen by a joint standing committee of both Houses after the election of the 246 by choosing from among panels of professionals, interest groups and other members of civil society. This model was modified and implemented in the Government of India Act 1935 and was also recommended by the Soulbury Commission for Ceylon in 1945.
The fundamental issue with the Bryce proposals for the House of Lords was the ability of the elected House to choose the members of the nominated House by virtue of indirect election among the MPs themselves, thereby creating a composition that would be reflective of the membership of the elected House.
The effect of this for us would be to alter the principle of nomination by the Prime Minister (Government Senators), the Leader of the Opposition (Opposition Senators) and the President (Independent Senators). In its place would come the election of senators by the members of the House of Representatives. The issue of the appointment of independent senators would arise.
In seeking to discuss the prospect of changes to the manner in which the Houses of Parliament are chosen, there would have to be due consideration given to the nature of our political culture and the need for political education surrounding any proposed reforms. The extent to which the society will embrace proposed reforms by virtue of their philosophical soundness and their practicality will be a function of open political dialogue and discussion.
The task of engaging the public in a consultation exercise will be crucial because it will involve public education as well.
My own experiences with leading such exercises for former Prime Minister Patrick Manning in 2009-2010 on his working document on constitution reform and for the current Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar on the Green Paper on constitution reform for internal self-government for Tobago in 2012 have made it clear to me that such exercises must embrace both political education and public consultation.
The opportunity to have that interface with civil society is a most sacred one that is vitally important for any meaningful dialogue to take place as all audiences (large or small) are valuable to the overall process. What may be proposed for our Parliament must reflect voices from the public before recommendations can be settled.
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