“Trinidad and Tobago,” I patiently repeated for the second time.
“What?” She frustratingly retorted.
Despite the lack of support from Congress of the People (COP) MPs—Winston Dookeran and Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan—the Government’s controversial Constitution (Amendment) Bill was passed with amendments in the Lower House at 4.04 am yesterday and is expected to be debated in the Senate later this month.
The Government only requires one Independent senator’s vote for the bill to be passed in the Senate. This was indicated yesterday by government officials after marathon debate on the bill and its contentious runoff poll proposal. Debate began at 10.30 am Monday and ended early yesterday morning, with the two COP MPs breaking People’s Partnership (PP) ranks in voting against the bill.
Winding up debate around 3 am yesterday, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar said Senate debate will provide a built-in delay on the bill and further consultation, including checks and balances.
“So it’s not all done today. Senate will take up the next step and the debate will continue. First the Lower House will decide on this, secondly the Senate will decide and thirdly the people will decide,” the PM added.
Persad-Bissessar added three amendments to the bills to cover concerns expressed in the debate. PP officials said the Senate debate may be around August 26, allowing time for more discussions, and the Senate will debate other bills next Tuesday. Speaking around 5 am yesterday, Attorney General Anand Ramlogan said Government only required the vote of one Independent senator in the Senate to pass the bill, adding he believed Government will obtain the necessary support.
Yesterday, People’s National Movement (PNM) Senate leader Camille Robinson-Regis said:
“We will continue to oppose the bill in the Senate. We noticed one amendment was made—on the appointment of a leader whose party has won 21 seats—which was what we had sought to prevent, any sleight of hand. “However, we are still concerned the Constitutional Reform Committee asked that nothing be done until public comment was received and this still needs to be done since people didn’t get to examine the bills.
“Also, we are concerned the CRC recommended T&T should retain the first-past-the-post system and Government has moved away from the report.” Robinson-Regis added: “We trust the Independents will do their duty and vote in accordance with the people’s wishes.”
• Make it clear the President has power to appoint as prime minister the leader of the party with 21 and more seats after election.
• Allow a three-day timeframe for the Elections and Boundaries Commission to eliminate mischief and verify signatures in applications to recall MPs.
• Limit the number of recalls in a constituency.
How the vote went
For: 23 PP MPs
PNM MPs: Marlene McDonald, Keith Rowley, Nileung Hypolite, Donna Cox, Colm Imbert, Amery Browne, Alicia Hospedales, Fitzgerald Jeffrey,Terrence Deyalsingh, Joanne Thomas, Paula Gopee- Scoon
COP: Winston Dookeran and Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan.
ILP: Jack Warner.
COP: Rodger Samuel
Patricia McIntosh and Patrick Manning.
In the debate, Dookeran and Seepersad-Bachan voted with ten Opposition PNM MPs and the Independent Liberal Party’s Jack Warner against the bill after Persad-Bissessar freed her MPs from the government whip to allow a conscience vote, following the COP’s call last Sunday for postponement of the debate and more consultation. The two COP votes plus the PNM and ILP’s totalled 14 against the bill to PP MPs’ 23 votes for it. COP MP Rodger Samuel abstained.
COP MPs were split on the issue, with party leader Prakash Ramadhar and Dr Lincoln Douglas voting for the bill, despite Douglas’ expressed concerns over the bill. Samuel did not speak. The situation reduced Government’s 26-seat majority to 23 for the vote. Former COP leader Dookeran, speaking around 9.30 pm on Monday, said he was “tormented” on his choice as he felt the runoff poll was troubling and if he voted for it, his major concern was he would be voting against proportional representation, which he favoured.
Dookeran said he could not wait for the Prime Minister’s promised PR bill, since he would be buying “cat in bag.” He felt the runoff would deny access to democratic rights and was the most dangerous part of the proposal. He said he told Cabinet colleagues of his concerns in a five-page document suggesting joint select committee consultations but was “disappointed” and would seek an audience with the PM on it in the future.
PNM MPs encouraged, applauded and thumped their desks in approval as Dookeran spoke, urging him to “take back the COP.” Speaking after 2 am, Seepersad-Bachan, while congratulating the PM and Ramadhar for taking steps towards reform, said more consultations were necessary and the runoff poll would get rid of third parties. She said it was a direct counter to the PR system and asked what was wrong with saying the PP had erred and would return to consultation. She also received PNM support.
Douglas, at 2.30 am, congratulated the PM for allowing a conscience vote but proposed putting “the whole thing on hold” or removing the anxiety-causing runoff proposal. He too urged more consultation, saying people needed to understand the issues, or would become suspicious, and should be involved in lawmaking.
End of the debate
Persad-Bissessar addressed their concerns in her wind-up address, adding T&T must be a team-player society. In the subsequent vote, however, Seepersad-Bachan and Dookeran both said “no.” When Seepersad-Bachan proposed an amendment to remove the runoff poll, Speaker Wade Mark said only written amendments were accepted in committee stage. The Opposition PNM resisted all aspects of the bill, shouting “no!” at each point.
When the COP’s Douglas said “yes” to the bill, PNMites expressed surprise. PNM MPs Nileung Hypolite and Colm Imbert returned from vacation overseas for the vote. Hypolite came from the airport at 10.30 pm on Monday. MP Joanne Thomas attended with her neck in a brace. After debate around 4.30 am, COP’s Seepersad-Bachan told the T&T Guardian she was disappointed the bill had been passed. The Lower House is now on a break until the House reconvenes for the 2015 Budget on September 8.