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Challenges Of Constitutional Reform
As I continue this series of articles on constitutional reform, it is useful to examine the challenges that have emerged on this subject over the years. Essentially, we began our independent years with a system of government that we either imported or was the end point of a pre-colonial evolutionary process.
That is a debate that is yet to be resolved and which will determine whether we have indigenous institutions by virtue of evolution or whether our institutions are imported copycat imitations.
Getting past that challenge will clear the way for us to determine what we are seeking to reform. Once we are certain that we are reforming institutions that belong to us by evolution then we can claim them as our own in which case the reforms will be part of that evolutionary process that pre-dates independence. If we deem our institutions to be imported copycat imitations, then we may be able to search for something indigenous.
The resolution of this matter during the process of public consultations will provide an insight as to how we may move forward.
When the opportunity for meaningful constitutional reform presented itself in the 1971-76 Parliament with the PNM holding a substantial majority in the House of Representatives, it was the sheer will and determination of Eric Williams that directed the debate towards the creation of a hybrid parliamentary model with an insufficient amount of presidentialism in it so that it can still be classified as parliamentary.
However, that crack in the door of presidentialism has allowed an ongoing debate about the importation of presidential techniques, such as term limits and fixed dates for elections, to be deemed desirable in some quarters. One is not certain how far the country wants to go in its embrace of presidentialism because there is a cross-current of fear of the Latin American model that is juxtaposed against the desirability of aspects of the Washington model.
Commonwealth Caribbean populations are not only attracted to term limits and fixed dates for elections, but also to overt public scrutiny of public officials and agencies by legislative committees. There is also the division of unfettered powers of appointment into processes of nomination by one authority, on the one hand, and legislative ratification on the other hand.
These underlying desires that have been expressed in various ways represent a desire in Commonwealth Caribbean societies to find methods to curb the perception or reality of extreme power that the Westminster-Whitehall model seems to convey to various public officials. It is really a search for real accountability as opposed to the appearance of possible cosmetic accountability.
What lies at the heart of this desire is the issue of trust. It is a factor that has bedeviled Commonwealth Caribbean society from the ambiguity of whether or not to embrace the Caribbean Court of Justice in place of the Privy Council to resisting presidentialism because of a fear of its alien character in our political culture.
We really have not been exposed to any other kind of political culture but the one that has been influenced by the Westminster-Whitehall model. The only major constitutional reforms that have been undertaken in the region are in T&T and in Guyana.
The circumstances for these changes have been driven by unusual political events such as the no-vote campaign in 1971 that delivered a clean sweep to the PNM and the allegations of electoral rigging and referendum fixing that led to the fundamental alteration of the Guyana Constitution by 1980.
Eric Williams was able to sustain his efforts for constitutional reform throughout the entire life of the Parliament of 1971-76 that delivered a new Westminster-Whitehall hybrid constitution in its fifth year.
Forbes Burnham was able to dominate the political process in Guyana after the highly controversial 1973 general election and the highly controversial 1978 referendum to deliver a socialist constitution by 1980 that departed from any semblance of Westminster-Whitehall foundations.
Outside of that, the collapse of the People’s Revolutionary Government in Grenada in 1983 led to the demise of the proposed one-party state that might have emerged from the constitutional reform process that was under way at the time.
An attempt at major reform within the confines of the Constitution was led by Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonzalves in St Vincent and the Grenadines in 2009, after six years of public consultations. These consultations culminated in a Constitution Bill that was passed with the requisite majority in the St Vincent and the Grenadines Parliament, but was not endorsed by the requisite two-thirds majority of the electorate in the constitutionally-required referendum.
T&T will be seeking to undertake fundamental constitutional reform later this year. Depending upon which areas of the Constitution are being amended, there may be the need for a three-quarters majority in the House and a two-thirds majority in the Senate.
That will present a challenge of consensus given the political arithmetic in both Houses of Parliament. The Government and the Opposition will obviously have to engage each other in order to make any meaningful changes.
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