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Postpone Senate debate: Carolyn wants wider consultation on election bill

Published: 
Friday, August 15, 2014
FILE PHOTO: Congress of the People political leader Prakash Ramadhar and party chairman Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan chat after yesterday’s media conference at the COP Operations Centre, Chaguanas, in April.

Congress of the People (COP) chairman Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan says the Senate debate on the contentious Constitution (Amendment) Bill should be deferred and further public consultations should be held. Her statement comes days before the bill is due to be laid in the Upper House on Tuesday and debate scheduled for August 26 sitting of the Senate. Seepersad-Bachan, in an interview with the T&T Guardian on Wednesday night, maintained her reservations about the bill, which seeks to amend the Constitution to allow for the recall of MPs, a two-term limit for prime ministers, fixed election dates and, the controversial runoff poll for MPs who did not win their seats by majority of over 50 per cent of votes cast. 

On Tuesday, when the bill was debated in the House of Representatives Seepersad-Bachan and Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Dookeran voted against it, while fellow COP member Rodger Samuel abstained. COP leader Prakash Ramadhar and member Dr Lincoln Douglas voted with government MPs for the bill even though the party’s National Council had decided on Sunday to defer voting on the bill for at least one month. The bill was passed after 23 MPs voted for it, 14 against and Samuel abstained. 

Seepersad-Bachan, speaking with the T&T Guardian after officially turning on the lights at the Gulf View Recreation Ground, Gulf View, La Romain, said public debate on the bill should be restarted. While she acknowledged that only Persad-Bissessar could make the decision to defer the Senate debate, the San Fernando West MP is firmly of the belief that the bill is too important not to allow citizens to voice their opinion. “This matter needs wider consultation and we need to go back to the public. “I think the Constitution Reform Commission should be allowed to go back to the public for a second phase of discussions to allow for consultation on all the mechanisms that have been proposed,” she said. While she agreed there should be a right of recall, she has difficulty with the runoff mechanism being proposed.

She also does not think the mechanism being proposed for recall is the most effective. “And therefore, should we go back and explain to the people how it will work, (find out) what are their views? “It is the bedrock principle of the COP that if you are going to reform the Constitution of T&T, then it must emerge from the people, not from the politicians, and not from the parliamentarians,” she added. Seepersad-Bachan said a runoff was not the only option and there were others that should be explored. “When we make amendments to the Constitution, it is not about preserving any political party, whether it is COP, UNC, PNM. “This is not why you amend the Constitution. When you amend the Constitution it is for the future of T&T, the electorate,” she contended.

She said the two-candidate runoff system would eliminate third parties and they would become no longer relevant. Seepersad-Bachan said any amendments to the Constitution “must always represent the judgment and the will of the people. “In this particular case we are not seeing that because it could not have possibly brought a bill on one Monday, lay it on the Parliament on Monday and expect to debate that bill seven days after,” she added. She said the runoff provision was new to citizens and it was clear “the people do not understand it... they do not like it.” 

Bill against COP principles
Seepersad-Bachan, who said she stood by her vote on Tuesday, said the Constitution (Amendment) Bill “goes against everything we represent at the COP.” She said she could not vote for a bill that would entrench the two party-system and marginalise the third constituency. The COP’s philosophy, she said, had always been to promote a voice for the third constituency and “this provision is going to impact negatively on that and we cannot stand by and say yes. “We are supporting a provision, we are voting for a provision in a bill that will actually go against what the party has stood for,” she added. 

She said she disagreed with the reasoning that Ramadhar, as the chairman of the Constitution Reform Commission, had to support the bill. However, she said in a coalition government it must be expected that partners would have differing views. She said the COP’s national council was up in arms over the legislation and passed a resolution to have Tuesday’s debate postponed and if that failed then MPs should vote using their conscience. She said no internal action would be taken against Ramadhar for his vote on Tuesday. He did not hold the view, she said, that the runoff system would negatively affect the multi-party system.