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Sunday, December 08, 2013
Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online
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Civic education on Constitution should be mandatory
As we embark upon another adventurous journey of constitutional reform, some kind of institutional or administrative mechanisms ought to be established to propagate and promote a modicum of understanding of the significance of our Constitution. It ought to be borne in mind that a constitution in a democracy is a valuable document, since it not only sets out the parameters within which the government must function and the institutional mechanisms for governance, but also the fundamental rights and freedom of the individual.
Accordingly a constitution can only be meaningful if citizens have some appreciation of the basic and fundamental principles enshrined in it.
To achieve this objective it would seem that the powers that be ought to embark upon a programme of civic education on the Constitution so as to sensitise and enhance the people’s awareness of their fundamental rights and freedoms, since this can be a powerful weapon in their armoury against the arbitrary exercise of power and the violation of their rights and freedom by those elected to govern and are responsible for law enforcement.
Not infrequently blame is attributed to the institution of Parliament and the system of democracy when things go wrong, but in reality it is generally a lack of a proper knowledge and comprehension of the constitutional and institutional mechanisms of government and the rights of the sovereign people which not infrequently provide fodder for authoritarianism, despotism, rebellion and revolution.
A society therefore which is devoid of some knowledge and understanding of its basic and fundamental rights and obligations will inevitably be the victim of unscrupulous and oppressive governments and the manipulable and exploitative skills of politicians. For this reason contempt for the violations of the rule of law and the exploitation of the people ought not to be attributed to politicians only but also to the absence of an informed and intelligent political electorate.
Moreover, it would seem that a vast segment of the electorate as well as those elected to represent them are unable to distinguish the varying and distinctive characteristics of the sovereignty of the people, the state, and the government. In a democracy the people are sovereign and they constitute the state as a collective body or the organised power of the community.
However, to administer the affairs of the state, the people elect governments as their servants with the right to dispense with their services as provided for in their constitutions. Ironically, however, upon the election of a government there follows an automatic subversion of the people’s sovereignty through the manipulation of the parliamentary sovereignty of Parliament, thereby subjecting the sovereign people to a state of subservience to the government until the next election.
On the other hand it is the ignorance of the electorate, their lethargy and indifference to their rights and obligations that promote bad governments. It would seem that people at varying levels, from the lay person to the professional as well as parliamentarians, hold the view that our Parliament is supreme and is the highest court of the land as obtains under the British Constitution—but this is clearly not so.
Under the British Constitution, Parliament is supreme which means that an act or law passed by Parliament cannot be questioned by the courts, which are bound to accept as law the validity of all parliamentary enactments. On the other hand the Constitution of T&T recognises the supremacy of the Supreme Court, which can declare an Act of Parliament unconstitutional.
It should therefore be mandatory to provide civic education to citizens through educational institutions, community centres, voluntary organisations and the mass media if democracy is to be meaningful.
This is clearly not a new concept, since some countries have made provisions in their constitutions for such a proposition. In this connection Felix Frankfurter, a former Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, speaking on the subject of democracy, said: “Democracy involves hardship—the hardship of unceasing responsibility of every citizen. Where the entire people do not take a continuous part in public life, there can be no democracy in any meaningful sense of the term.”
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