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PM challenges public if its against runoff bill: Vote us out in 2015

Published: 
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
PNM and UNC supporters taunt each other during yesterday’s demonstration against provisions of the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014. PHOTO: ABRAHAM DIAZ

Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar yesterday said voting on the controversial Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 would not be delayed and she was prepared to commit political suicide for it if it came to that. The PM further threw out a bold challenge to the electorate to vote out the People’s Partnership in the 2015 general election if they did not want the bill. Her bold stance came even as protesters, both for and against the bill, threw jabs at each other and the anti-bill challengers clashed with the police.

While the tensions rose on the outside, Persad-Bissessar in piloting the bill in the Senate, said: “For those of the view that I am committing political suicide, I am prepared to take that risk. I am not daunted. As a politician and a prime minister, my interest is not for my political survival but for the people. “If this thing is so bad, well, vote us out in 2015.” 

She reiterated that the People’s Partnership (PP) had promised constitutional reform in its manifesto and intended to fulfil that promise, saying T&T cannot continue in the same old political system. She asked: “They are saying have more consultations, delay the bill. For how long? We have been talking constitutional reform for nearly 50 years. The time has come not to talk the talk but to walk the talk.” 

Persad-Bissessar said a prime minister had never come to the Senate before to pilot a bill but in declaring that debate on the bill will continue, she said the Government would listen to the views put forward. Affirming her belief that the bill will take power out of politicians’ hands and put it in the hands of the people, she said the existing Westminster system gave an advantage which the Opposition People’s National Movement (PNM) did not want to relinquish.

“We are of the view politicians must not lead from the tower but from the battlefield,” she said. She said the Independence Constitution was drafted more than 40 years ago and since then several efforts were made to reform it. There were six constitution reform commissions and none of their recommendations were entered into the statute books, she said.

Refining system
Addressing concerns over the bill, she said there were 21 consultations on it throughout the country and said more people should have come forward and expressed their views. “But we are here. We will listen and then vote. We are quite prepared to listen to the debate. The senators are prepared to bring their non-partisan views,” she noted.

Persad-Bissessar asked what could be so fundamentally wrong with the three main provisions in the bill, the right to recall a non-functioning MP, fixed term limits for a prime minister and the runoff ballot. While the Opposition was against the bill, she said, Jamaica and Barbados were welcoming it. The PM said she knew most of the fear was over the runoff ballot. “There is the thought by some that the proposed runoff ballot could lead to stealing the election.

“That is a very dangerous charge,” she said. But, she said, those making the accusation have yet to describe how that could be done and demonstrated how it could benefit the ruling party. “How can it be that we said we are giving the people a greater say and we will be stealing the election?” she asked. Allaying fears that the British Westminster system will be removed, she said: “We are not removing the first-past-the-post system. We are refining it.”

She said facing a runoff in an election would not necessarily guarantee defeat either, since the votes could go any way. She said, on the contrary, the runoff ballot would not eliminate third parties but give them a second chance. The PM said there have been some 47 political parties in T&T and few survived. She also announced that a Constituency Development Fund would be announced in the upcoming budget, in which each constituency would be given $10 million.