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Independent Senators on constitution bill: We can’t be bullied

Published: 
Thursday, August 14, 2014

Independent Senators yesterday made it clear they are not taking on any pressure that may be brought to bear on them over the upcoming Senate debate on Government’s controversial Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014. Six of the nine Independents spoke with the T&T Guardian yesterday on the situation shaping up and their respective modus operandi on bills generally. That came after a call on the Opposition People’s National Movement’s St James platform on Tuesday for the Independent Senators not to support the bill. 

House leader Dr Roodal Moonilal expressed concern yesterday about what he deemed intimidation and harassment of parliamentarians over the bills. He cited groups of people gathered outside the Parliament up to 4.30 am on Tuesday who jeered People’s Partnership (PP) MPs as they left after the debate. He also cited yesterday’s Express front page picturing all nine Independents and asking which one would vote for the bill.

“As if voting for the bill is a crime. This is intimidation,” Moonilal said, calling on the PNM and “its agents” to halt intimidation. Saying the Independent bench had a “permanent conscience vote,” Moonilal said the PNM “shouldn’t put pressure on those members or have roving supporters harassing MPs.” 

The reform package, which was passed with amendments in the Lower House at 4.05 am on Tuesday after a marathon debate, will be debated in the Senate on August 26 after being laid in the Upper House at next Tuesday’s session. It requires the support of at least one Independent Senator for passage in the Senate. Government has 16 senators, the Opposition PNM six and the Independent bench nine.

On possible pressure on the Independents, co-ordinator Helen Drayton yesterday said: “I’m a strong advocate of civil society expressing their views, responsibly, on important matters, such as proposals on electoral reform and changes to the Constitution. “Frankly, I have no problem with people lobbying me, in a respectful manner, to support their causes. They do so all the time. That only serves to make me reflect and carefully research information. 

“As an Independent Senator and therefore a person in public life, I expect to be lobbied and also criticised for my views and decisions. Sometimes, people may even ridicule me for my decisions. 

“I’m not easily intimidated and I don’t think I could be such that intimidation would make me change my views on a matter if I am moved by my conscience. I took an oath to ‘bear true faith and allegiance to T&T and to uphold the Constitution and to conscientiously and impartially discharge the responsibilities to the people.’ That I will do.”  

No need to savage us
Her colleague, Anthony Vieira, said: “I don’t feel pressure, partly because I deliberately try to avoid reading media reports to focus on bills. I do research based on what’s presented to me. “I can’t say I have been called by anybody, or been lobbied. I think people know me better than that,” Vieira said public debate and citizens engaged on the Constitution and how it would affect them was healthy for a young democracy.

“But I also wanted to join with those who say: ‘You don’t want this to get ugly.’ I am a mediator and our approaches are hard on the issue and soft on the person,” he added. Saying he hoped to see a little more compassion in the situation, Vieira said it was one thing to support one’s party but there was no need to savage another side.

“I haven’t yet made up my mind on this bill. I will examine details, do research and I will want to hear how debate goes. Sometimes you can modify or change a position, I don’t necessarily go in with a fixed view,” he added. Vieira said having all views forced people to think. He added that the Constitution was a work in progress, not cast in stone, was still being worked out to suit its demographic and continued to change.
 
Mahabir: I will weigh it on merit
Economist Dr Dhanayshar Mahabir said he expected the Parliament had adequate security but hoped there would be “more light than heat” on the issue. “Parliament ought to be treated like a court. No one should try to intimidate members, the same way no one should try to intimidate judges or court officers entering those forums to discharge their duties. 

“You often get a few influential people’s views impacting on public opinion, as seen in the recent retirement pension increase legislation. But I also try to persuade public opinion,” he added. Mahabir said he was not easily influenced by Lower House agreements and did not read Lower House MPs’ contributions on bills, since he decided on the basis of material as it came to him.

“It doesn’t mean I am not open to change but the issue is what is in the interest of all 41 constituencies? If the bill’s measures were in the interest of all of them in T&T, then it will get my approval,” he noted. Mahabir said he had already voted alone on certain issues when he felt people were not seeing things he saw and had voted with the Government on the recent pension hike bills, where public opinion was against it but also voted against Government on other bills.

He said: “It all depends on the merit of the bills. I haven’t made up my mind on this one yet. “There could be intimidation or not. For me, the bill will have to stand or fall in respect of how well it was drafted...if badly drafted, if it can be redrafted with amendments, if it has good intentions, if so are the instruments for adjustment suitable, etc.

“Contributions would have to be analytical and structured and if at the end I see it is flawed, I can’t vote. If it’s in the public interest, I will have to support it, or say if it needs amendment. If it’s not, I will say why I think it’s not. “
 
Roach: We must do best by all
Independent Senator Hugh Ian Roach said when he dealt with an issue, he did it on the basis of doing right by all manner of men and women in society, reflecting the majority thinking of all and T&T’s best interests. “Independents represent T&T’s conscience and we are called on to act in its best interest, not PNM, PP, UNC or any one body. We try to do the best by all. “I don’t think mature professionals comprising the Independents can be easily intimidated one way or the other, in or out of the Parliament Chamber. 

“I don’t think anyone I know will bow to any pressure. People will be independent-minded and serve the country’s best interests,” he said. 

Small: Democracy at work
Senator David Small, a public service technocrat, said he saw the public debate on the bill as democracy at work. He said if some people called for support or non-support of the bills from public platforms, it was their right. “As long as people don’t cross the line and intrude on anyone’s personal space, I think this is healthy for T&T and we will weigh all views and come to conclusions as we have done before,” he added.

Small said he listened to all views, read everything on an issue and would take a position in T&T’s best interest. “We will embrace the role with soberness.” “I never come to a position very easily. It requires a lot of reflection and much thought but I will come to a concerted, considered position,” he added.

Wheeler: Examine final product
Dr Victor Wheeler said: “I gather amendments were made to the original bill. Sometimes amendments come in the committee stage so only when the final product is completed, then can I say how I will go. Sometimes it isn’t guaranteed to come to a vote either, since we have seen matters that come to the Senate and do not go to a vote. So we’ll see.” Independent Senators Elton Prescott, Joy Abdul-Mohan and Rolph Balgobin were unavailable for comment.