Last Monday, as the country looked on with amazement at the bizarre, almost comical collapse of a special general meeting of the membership of the Law Association requested by 30 members, I was...
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Campaign of panic and fear
Mischief-makers are having a field day with the Constitution Amendment Bill now before the Parliament, laments Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. In this interview she complains about personal attacks against her, which she believes are from a very narrow sector and based on the fact that she is a female prime minister. She also defends the bill and argues that those who are opposed to it are ranting and raving, provoked by a deliberate campaign to arouse panic and fear.
Q: (In her St Clair office after chairing the weekly Cabinet meeting Thursday afternoon) Madam Prime Minister, this Government has been under a lot of pressure from day one and this latest controversy has created almost an avalanche of criticism. However, how do you treat with criticisms of a personal nature?
A: By the grace of God and a lot of prayers. I have always been guided by spirituality all my life especially in my public/political life, and as far as you have been talking about avalanche...the avalanche of criticism has been coming from just one or two sectors, it is not the entire country.
Are you a Prime Minister under siege? (Smiles)
No, I don’t believe I am under siege. What I do believe is that since 2010, there has been an increase in the demand for transparency and accountability in governance. I am happy that we are able to see that kind of standard where the electorate, the citizens, want a higher level in those standards. Some days, of course, you know you might say water more than flour, but generally it is the challenge of the job, it is the nature of the job, because it is so much the people want that you need to address your mind to.
Madam Prime Minister, I have been in the media for almost 50 years and you are the first T&T PM who seems to have been virtually under attack, as I said, from the start of your tenure. When you first set your eyes on this office, did you for one moment ever think this would have been part of the fare?
(Adjusting her glasses and half smiling) Well, honestly I did not think about it at that time, but remember, Clevon, I did not come into the office in a short space of time. I have been in the politics for 24 years. So I have seen how it comes and goes, your know the ebb and the flow….today is very good and people are very happy and tomorrow morning it is another story. So I would not say that I am totally surprised by the nature of the question.
What worries me, however, is the extent of the level of attacks which come from certain quarters which tend to be very personal, rather than dealing with matters of national interest, for example, my shoe (chuckles), which really does not matter: what shoe I wear and when I wear it; my hairstyle, whether it is long or short…it really does not matter.
What’s the reason for these, as you say, personal attacks?
Maybe it is because I am a female prime minister. Nobody would find out what suit a prime minister wears, which shoes he was wearing, if that person is a male prime minister...which really is not important.
And they have now become the topic of public discussion and debate...but only from some quarters. There are so many right-thinking people who do not engage in that kind of non-productive talk.
Do you see a gender bias here?
Well, there are some who are very gender-biased…our society has always been a very male-dominated society, and in fact, do you remember, when I was running for the office as prime minister, there was a group saying a woman should never become a prime minister? So those persons still, I am sure, have that kind of view, and there are others just cannot believe that a woman as a leader, even though the majority of persons voted that I should become PM.
And as I said, this so-called avalanche only comes from certain quarters…certain quarters, certain quarters.
Care to identify “certain quarters”?
Well, of course the Opposition and it is in the nature of their job to oppose everything that we do, and that is the case, so to say that I am surprised by this, no. They want to ensure that we do not achieve anything positive to develop T&T...we get nothing done, therefore proposals have been put forward, for example, every project that we have tried to do, every piece of legislation taken to Parliament, especially those requiring a special majority, are being opposed.
And this exercise which is major constitutional reform, really, to make for better governance, reforming the electoral process after 40 years, what was good then cannot still be good today. So that criticism and that protest coming from the Opposition is not surprising nor unexpected.
Mrs Persad-Bissessar, one of your detractors has said that the proposed constitutional reform now before the Parliament is designed to choke the people out of their freedom and democratic rights.
Nothing could be further from the truth and I think that those naysayers are ranting and raving in that regard without any basis in fact. First of all, your freedom to vote your candidate of choice is definitely within our proposals. Because you will have a first ballot where all the ballots go up so you chose and if your candidate is the best one, well, so be it.
This only arises where you do not have a majority, so it is not in every constituency we will have a runoff election, it is only in those constituencies where the first ballot does not produce a clear winner, above 50 per cent of the vote. So let us disabuse our mind: there would not be 41 runoffs. So how are we choking freedom and how these elections would be dictatorial?
The Opposition is clai ming they were ambushed by these proposals.
We have been seeking electoral reform since 2010, in our manifesto we indicated these were our proposals, that we would be bringing legislation, we set up a constitution reform commission, and they have been meeting, holding talks. So I cannot see how you can be ambushed by this legislation.
Is it a fact, Madam PM, that only two members of the Opposition bothered to attend these sessions?
That is a fact, and that goes too for a lot of the people who are now ranting and raving, they never attend the conversations and they now want to have consultations. When for over a year consultations were taking place they did not attend.
The Opposition members (Mrs Penelope Beckles-Robinson and Dr Amery Brown) attend in their personal capacity and I do not believe they were representing the views of their party.
Isn’t the PNM now saying the runoff was not in the report of the Ramadhar Commission?
This is not true. If you look at the addendum of the report you would see they would have had their discussion and they all signed...
Why would they make that charge?
(Slightly furrowed brow) Again, it is only some of the people who want to make mischief. Coming back again to the same suspects, mischief-makers, and they would use every example they can get to prevent this bill from succeeding.
But why are they so afraid?
It is because the PNM has always been a minority government they always managed to rule the country being a minority government. With this proposed legislation we will have a truly majority government so they are afraid of majority government which means the majority of the people will be supporting that majority government.
Look at it there is nothing reasonable as to why they are so opposed to the second ballot. They say this is choking, this is dictatorial. How holding election can be dictatorial? There is no democratic country in the world where the minority rules.
The PNM is accusing the PP administration of trying to steal the forthcoming general election alleging that the ruling coalition knows it would lose those polls?
(A hearty laugh); The Rowley PNM because this is what it is now, the Rowley PNM pattern of behaviour is to make these blanket statements to cause fear and panic but how do you support it? How would it steal an election, how can this proposal steal an election? Let’s break it down logically. You have a first ballot a candidate does not get 50 per cent of the vote what do you do? You have a second ballot how is that stealing an election. How?
You may steal an election, in inverted commas, when it is you allow a minority man or woman to become MP for the constituency. This runoff vote (the second election) is a corollary of the right of recall.
Given the nature of the criticism, you get the impression these people do not fully understand the provisions of what is being proposed. Are you, Madam Prime Minister, satisfied that the government is doing a very good job of selling these proposals to the electorate?
There is always room for improvement to get your ideas off and the fact that I slowed it down in the Senate debate which means there is more time for getting the information out there. It is now for the Senators to decide.
But you are correct: there is room for improvement, more public discussions, more information.
On this recall matter what yardstick does the voter have to measure to determine their MP is a failure and that they should be removed from office?
There are two models of recall and we have adopted one of those we think will work in our situation. Our model is this; any two people can apply to the Elections and Boundaries Commission, [which] would be taking care of this, so there can be no gerrymandering, there is no undue influences and so on. You go to the EBC, you get a form, you sign up and say, “Look, we want a recall petition against MP X or Y.”
Is there anywhere on that form which states you have to give a reason for recalling your MP?
No. And that’s another thing; in some countries reasons are given, in other countries no reasons are required.
Isn’t that against this thing called natural justice? Where is the natural justice here?
But natural justice is there. If somebody applies for a petition against you—and in fact we have put in that you have to be notified of a petition against you—then you have to go out there and plead your case. So that you have the opportunity to defend yourself.
You have to get ten per cent of the voting population to sign. When that is signed you then have to get two-thirds of the votes. If two thirds of the voters do not want you, surely that is enough reason for you not to be there.
There is also the claim from your detractors who are saying that if government loses the election it could stay in office for 15 days.
(Twiddling a pen in one hand) I want to make it very clear that was not the intention and in fact, to make it abundantly clear, I moved an amendment in the Lower House which says where there is a clear result, meaning 21 seats and above, the President appoints a prime minister immediately. But where there is uncertainty, it is only then we would have a runoff.
Mrs Persad-Bissessar, there have been some strident, if not vitriolic statements during this public debate about the PP seeking political unrest and political instability. Are you concerned about these accusations?
(Another hearty laugh) Look, Clevon, we passed the bill in the Lower House Tuesday morning. I have been to various parts of Trinidad and I have not seen one riot (laughs again), no unrest, and the bill was passed.
You see, again it’s a campaign of panic and fear, a deliberate pattern, and I have not seen any rational reason why they should not support the bill.