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Moonilal on Senate runoff protests: We’ll listen to valid concerns

Published: 
Monday, August 18, 2014
Bon Air residents attack an effigy of their Member of Parliament, Dr Lincoln Douglas, during a protest over his support for Government on the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 yesterday. PHOTO: ABRAHAM DIAZ

Government isn’t backing down from tabling its controversial Constitution amendment bill in the Senate tomorrow—for debate on August 26—despite heightened appeals for postponement and yesterday’s Opposition People’s National Movement (PNM) call for the bill to be withdrawn completely.

The bill and its controversial runoff poll proposal was passed in the Lower House last Tuesday after marathon debate, though Congress of the People (COP) MPs Winston Dookeran and Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan voted against the bill along with the PNM and Independent Liberal Party (ILP) MP Jack Warner. COP leader Prakash Ramadhar and fellow MP Dr Lincoln Douglas voted for the bill while MP Rodger Samuel abstained.

Yesterday, some Lopinot/Bon Air West constituents burnt an effigy of Douglas at the Emancipation Park. Now headed for August 26 debate in the Senate, the bill will require the vote of at least one Independent Senator for passage. The bill is expected to be tabled—but not debated—at tomorrow’s Senate session, where debate focuses on Finance Intelligence Unit legislation. Last week, several groups as well as Seepersad-Bachan called for the Senate debate to be postponed to allow for more public consultation.

Senate President Timothy Hamel-Smith, a COP member, is also at the centre of a furore concerning an e-mail he is reported to have sent to certain people and organisations, urging them to go to the media to lobby for the bill to be referred to a Parliamentary Joint Select Committee for further consultation. The Law Association on the weekend also called for postponement of debate and urged Government to facilitate “proper consultation” and allow the population opportunity to ventilate views.

PNM whip Marlene McDonald, who last week called on Independent Senators not to support the bill, said yesterday the bill should be withdrawn completely as it was “undemocratic and unconstitutional.” McDonald said the Law Association had been slow to respond, but nevertheless called for postponement. She said, however, that it was not merely a matter of passing the bill, but that it should be withdrawn completely. 

She said she agreed with PNM leader Dr Keith Rowley on this and also agreed with his concern that the Election and Boundaries Commission had said it wasn’t consulted on the bill. 

No postponement
But yesterday, acting Attorney General Dr Roodal Moonilal said while calls for more dialogue and debate were being made, the Senate debate on the bill was not proceeding immediately at this Tuesday’s Senate session, but on the August 26 session. “Because of the space in between those two dates, greater public debate and talks on the bill will have an opportunity to occur,” he added.

However, Moonilal said the Government’s agenda for debate of the bill in the Senate hasn’t changed, “...so far, and if it does, we’ll so inform the national community. But it’s not that we’re not listening. In the period between debate in one House (of Representatives) and the other (Senate) there are a couple weeks for society to continue to discuss the bill.” 

Moonilal added, “There are different calls being made, including the PNM’s call, to try and scare people. Those we won’t accept. But we do accept calls for more dialogue and that is what will take place. Those calling for delays can also make recommendations on the bill. Government is open-minded on valid recommendations and suggestions. 

“But we’re also clear on the objective that we promised constitutional reform in the PP’s manifesto, which was laid in Parliament, and we’ll proceed notwithstanding the hysteria the PNM is generating in our systems.” Last week, Moonilal signalled that Government might be open to amendments to the bill in the Senate debate.

On Saturday, the ILP, Movement for Social Justice (MSJ), some COP elements, former UNC MP Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj and Mikela Panday spoke against the bill. Tonight, the UNC hosts a public meeting in Gasparillo where its speakers will deal with the issue. Yesterday, COP’s Dookeran, when asked if he supported postponement of debate or even withdrawal of the bill, said, “Let the discussions (on this) continue. I stand where I stood in Parliament (on the bill)—that’s all I’ll say.”