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Public gets some power

PM seeks sweeping constitutional change
Published: 
Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar make her presentation during the fifth and final session of the tenth Parliament on Monday. Photo: SHIRLEY BAHADUR

During a presentation at the first sitting fifth and final session of the tenth Parliament on Monday, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar laid out her Government’s plan for the proposed sweeping constitutional reform changes to be brought in the Constitutional (Amendment) Bill. The bill is to be debated next week.

Following is the PM’s full statement:

I am pleased to make a statement on the first day of the epoch-making and revolutionary changes we have ushered in through the new Standing Orders. We take pride in the fact that we have been able to overhaul and comprehensively revise our Standing Orders, which operated for over half a century, from 1961.

Likewise I am pleased that we take action and we take pride in later introducing the Constitutional (Amendment) Bill 2014 which seeks to ensure that we keep more of our promises made in our 2010 Manifesto (in fact we recall this is the first ever manifesto to be adopted through Parliament as our policy agenda for development and progress). In that manifesto, we sought to establish a partnership with the people to build unity and ensure prosperity for all.

Good governance was sought through effective representation, participation, transparency and accountability. The adoption of the manifesto through Parliament as our development policy agenda was the best way to ensure that citizens had the power to hold us to our commitments, and to demand of us, the development and progress that we promised. In other words, we immediately put the power where it rightfully belonged—in the hands of the people.

As outlined in our Achievements Booklet, Honourable Speaker, we have delivered on over 90 per cent of our promises, contained in our 2010 manifesto. And, today we seek to deliver even more of those promises—by keeping our constitutional reform promise to give more power to the people.

Commission on Constitutional Reform
Mr Speaker, if I may give a brief background as to how we arrived here, on March 2, 2013 the Cabinet appointed a National Commission on Constitutional Reform (NCCR) to “engage in the widest possible consultation as a pre-requisite to constitutional reform.”

Matters for consideration were to include limitations on terms of service by the Prime Minister, a right of recall in respect of non-performing parliamentary representatives, respecting the voices of the minorities whilst giving effect to the will of the majority, making every vote count and also for provision for fixed dates for general elections.

These matters, and of course others, were considered by a very distinguished constitutional commission chaired by the Hon Minister of Legal Affairs Mr Prakash Ramadhar and included Madam Justice Amrika Tiwary-Reddy, Mr Justice Sebastian Ventour, Dr Merle Hodge, Dr Hamid Ghany and Mr Carlos Dillon.

This commission operated so as to achieve public involvement. There was extensive consultation and a careful report with recommendations was produced. This is a copy, Mr Speaker, of the report by the Constitution Commission and thereafter, we went back to the public for further consultations and an addendum or supplementary report was also produced. Mr Speaker, the bill which will be laid is soundly based on the recommendations and amendments to our Constitution, as set forth in the report and the post script report.

I take this opportunity to thank these commissioners including the honourable Minister of Legal Affairs and indeed all the many citizens across the nation who made their voices heard and contributed to the dialogue.

Proposed reform
A Constitution Amendment Bill 2014, Mr Speaker, is to be introduced today, which will propose a term limit for the office of the Prime Minister, a recall provision and a runoff poll in elections for the House of Representatives. These measures, Mr Speaker, require only a simple majority. Further, I will in the near future, lay a Bill to fix the dates of Parliaments so the dates for general elections will be known. Such a bill will require a special majority.

Reform Details The reform details Mr Speaker:

Firstly, term limits for the Prime Minister.
1) Term limits for the Prime Minister
In our present proposals there is a simple amendment which prevents the President from offering the Prime Ministership to anyone who has served for two full terms or at least ten years and six month, which is the two constitutional terms. Once a Prime Minister has served for a period of ten years and six months (five years being the normal five-year life of a Parliament and the subsequent 90-day period by which general elections must be held).

We are of the view Mr Speaker, that fossilised leadership, which entrenches itself via manipulation and control of party politics, is an anathema to the principles of democracy and growth. We have had our fair share of leaders who continued to rule and refused to give way even though it was obvious that the time for change had come. This can suffocate new talent and stifle a democracy. 

The US system vs Westminster
The two-term-limit provision is a very important feature to give power to the people and for a powerful democracy. And so, Mr Speaker, the provisions will be contained in the bill so I will not spend time to read the exact wording of those provisions. But I would want to say that, whilst American Presidents leave office with dignity and grace, Westminster Prime Ministers cling to power to the very end and are often forced out of office in indignity and disgrace. These were the words I read long ago in an article by Prof Selwyn Ryan.

And so, whilst American Presidents leave, Mr Speaker, there is empirical evidence to suggest that this may well be true. Some 91 countries worldwide, Mr Speaker, have term limits of two terms for their heads of government. We are seeking to become country number 92 with term limits for the Prime Minister. There are many benefits for this, Mr Speaker, and in the debate, we will spend we will spend more time given the restraints of the new Standing Orders.

We will just mention the second provision contained in the bill— the right of recall, Mr Speaker.

Right of recall
This amendment would create the ability to recall individual members of the House after the expiration of three years from the date of election. The right of recall is a term used to describe a process whereby the electorate can petition to trigger a vote between scheduled elections on the suitability of an existing elected representative to continue in office. This forms part of the systems of government at different levels in several countries, including Canada, the United States, Switzerland, Philippines and Venezuela.

Again, the bill would lay out the procedure for that recall. And, there are several benefits for the recall. This again, Mr Speaker is to give us a stronger democracy, a stronger connection between elected representatives and the electorate. And, of course, Mr Speaker, greater representation at the parliamentary level. Thirdly, we seek to expand the existing right of recall in the Constitution. You will recall Section 49 A, which is a right of recall but it is only within the hands of the leader of a party. It was exercised in the case of St Joseph.

What we are seeking to do is to expand that right of recall to place the power in the hands of the people and the people of the country will be the ones to trigger recall of an MP. The right of recall, Mr Speaker, does not yet exist at Westminster and so this is a very bold step. It may well be that T&T may lead the way for Westminster because we would be the first Westminster-style democracy that will be adopting the right of recall.

Indeed, in the Queen’s speech, June 4, 2014 she stated that her government will introduce legislation on the recall of MPs. So we shall be the first of the 52 Commonwealth countries.

Second ballot runoff voting
The third provision is for second ballot runoff voting. Section 46 (1) of our Constitution states that “the House of Representatives shall consist of members who shall be elected in the manner provided by Parliament.” This means that Parliament is vested with the authority to provide for the manner by which members are to be elected to this honourable House. I wish to change the way we elect our members to strengthen our democracy in a way that makes the power of the people supreme.

Recall and runoff polls are clearly linked. The runoff is often viewed as a corollary of the right of recall as an MP who is elected with less than 50 per cent of the votes cast is obviously immediately vulnerable to a recall. Such polls, it can be noted, are widely used in countries with substantial democratic traditions including France, Switzerland, Argentina, Venezuela, the Philippines, Taiwan and South Korea.

A runoff poll is proposed so that each member of the House of Representatives will only become such a member if he obtains more than 50 per cent of the votes cast in a constituency. This means that where, on a first poll at an election that is not achieved, a second poll will within 15 days be held between the top two candidates.

This will place greater emphasis on the quality of the candidates selected, as the question in the runoff will be: “Which of these two candidates will better serve me and my constituency?” In such a system, the voices of the minority would be respected even as effect is given to the will of the majority and, every single vote would matter and count as the possibility of voting a second time will breathe new life and meaning into the democratic process.

No minority MP 
This measure reaffirms democracy and ensures that the balance of power is always tipped in favour of the people, not the Government. Over the years, we have seen so many candidates get elected to this House on the basis of winning less than 50 per cent of the votes cast.

It would be unfair to future candidates who will be elected and who will now come under the revised constitutional provisions for being recalled by their constituents that they should start their term of office as MPs on the basis of being minority winners. That will only serve to strengthen any persons who may wish to use the revised recall process for ulterior motives. It is necessary to protect against this by having all MPs elected on a majority basis.

Further, because of its effectiveness in defining democracy and securing the rights of people over the rights of politicians, the United National Congress will also be considering the adoption of this process into its constitution, subject of course to the agreement of the membership.

Fixed date for elections 
Mr Speaker, hitherto, the Prime Minister has been subject to no limit on her term of office and no particular constraints have been put on her ability to advise the President to dissolve Parliament and set a date for general elections. The commission has recommended that the date for general elections be fixed. It is therefore proposed that the life of a Parliament should ordinarily be fixed at five years. 

This will effectively fix the date for the holding of general elections. Long gone would be the days of silly boasts and taunts about leaders “having the date in their back pocket.” This provides clarity for the population at large and enhances the ability to participate in our democratic life, for all will know the electoral timetable. This will enable all participants in the political life of T&T to have the certainty needed to take a full and fair part in a participatory democracy.

Furthermore, the role, Mr Speaker, of the House of Representatives and the Senate is enhanced because the influence of the executive over Parliament is lessened. I am sure, Mr Speaker, that all members of this honourable House and the Senate welcome anything which strengthens Parliament. It is my intention to lay a bill with this reform shortly.

Conclusion
I thank you very much, Mr Speaker, and I say that these moves, these initiatives are initiatives we promised in our manifesto in 2010, we placed into government policy on our agenda for development.
We are keeping those promises to place power, and greater power, in the hands of the people.