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The persistence of Westminster

Published: 
Sunday, August 24, 2014

“The Colonial Office does not need to examine its second-hand colonial constitutions. It has a constitution at hand which it can apply immediately to T&T. That is the British Constitution…Ladies and gentlemen, I suggest to you that the time has come when the British Constitution, suitably modified, can be applied to T&T. After all, if the British Constitution is good enough for Great Britain, it should be good enough for T&T.”
(Eric Williams, Constitution Reform in T&T, Public Affairs Pamphlet No. 2, Teachers’ Educational and Cultural Association, Trinidad, July 19, 1955, page 30.)

Norman Manley took a different view in addressing the Jamaican House of Representatives on January 24, 1962: “Let us not make the mistake of describing as colonial, institutions which are part and parcel of the heritage of this country. If we have any confidence in our own individuality and our own personality we should absorb these things and incorporate them into our being and turn them to our own use as part of the heritage we are not ashamed of.” (Proceedings of the Jamaican House of Representatives, 1961-62, page 766.)

Manley was arguing that colonial institutions that evolved over centuries belong to Jamaicans and should be absorbed as Jamaican, while Williams argued that we needed to import suitably modified institutions from Westminster. Under the Williams narrative, there is little room for alteration unless it starts at Westminster and is then adapted locally. Under the Manley narrative, there is room for change by virtue of evolution.

The current debate about constitution reform raises the issue of whether or not we should make the changes proposed. A strong undercurrent in the debate for those who are opposed is that our model is based on Westminster and we should not deviate from that.
For those who are supportive of the changes, the main undercurrent that endorses their view is further evolution of institutional development.

When faced with the opportunity to undertake constitution reform after ANR Robinson and Vernon Jamadar had played into his hands in 1971 with their no-vote campaign, Eric Williams appointed a constitution commission under the chairmanship of Sir Hugh Wooding. 
The Wooding Commission Report was rejected by Williams as some of its proposals were inconsistent with the Westminster model. Williams then embarked on his own constitution reform process in 1975 with Wilfred Mc Kell, the DPA, for change in 1976.

In the early part of this millennium, both Patrick Manning and Basdeo Panday were in favour of an executive presidency. Former prime minister Manning pursued this reform which was a major departure from the moorings of the Westminster model. He laid a “Working Document for Constitutional Reform for Public Consultation” in the House of Representatives on January 9, 2009.

I was asked to chair the public consultations, not as an advocate but as a facilitator, to receive the views of the population and to report on those views. That process commenced in October 2009 and was terminated as incomplete in April 2010 when the Parliament was dissolved. I was also asked to prepare a companion monograph to accompany the Working Document for the public consultations which was called Changing Our Constitution.

I assessed the proposed hybrid presidency that was being created on pages 32 to 37 of the document. My assessment included the following : It is clear that the intention is to create a hybrid parliamentary-presidential constitution with parliamentarism being the dominant force in the hybrid.” (page 32).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      
I went further to state the following on page 33: “The actual presidency that is now being proposed will be weaker than the office of Prime Minister under the existing constitutional arrangements…” I proceeded to explain why in greater detail down to page 37. Even today, it is apparent that there are some who either did not read this document or failed to understand what was said.

The common denominator, then and now, is the curbing of executive power either through the creation of a Majority Leader under the Working Document, as I explained, or the imposition of term limits for the prime minister and subjecting even the prime minister to a recall petition just like other MPs. 

As regards the runoff proposal, there is a philosophical justification for the method from Franklyn Khan, PNM chairman, and Ashton Ford, PNM general secretary, at their press conference on November 29, 2012, in announcing the PNM reforms to its party constitution.
In a report by Ria Taitt in the Express on November 30, 2012, chairman Khan is reported as saying:

“…for the election of the position of political leader there would be an instant runoff system. If, for instance, three are contesting and Candidate A gets 40 per cent, Candidate B gets 35 and another gets 25, the PNM does not want its political leader to be a minority leader and therefore Candidate C would drop out and a runoff between A and B would take place.”  The philosophical validity of the runoff is accepted by the PNM; the public quarrel is over the contradiction.