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Independents on runoff bill support- Major gaps now plugged

Saturday, August 30, 2014
Independent Liberal Party (ILP) chairman Jack Warner respond to questions as political leader Lyndira Oudit, left, and deputy leader Rekha Ramjit look on during a press conference at the party’s Edward Street, Port-of-Spain, office yesterday. Warner announced that the party had launched a challenge of the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 in the courts. PHOTO: KRISTIAN DE SILVA

The three Independent senators who supported the Government’s Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 on Thursday night, Dr Dhanayshar Mahabir, David Small and Dr Rolph Balgobin, have no regrets about supporting it. But at least one of them is disgusted about the ethnicity attacks that crept in to the debate from external sources.

The bill was passed with a vote of 18 senators for and 12 against at 11.09 pm after three days of Senate debate. It was passed with a major amendment to the runoff proposal, which will now allow a third candidate a chance in the runoff poll. Mahabir, Small and Balgobin voted for passage though their six other Independent colleagues—and the Opposition People’s National Movement Senators—voted against the bill.

It was passed in the Lower House two weeks ago. The bill will now return to the Lower House for approval of the Senate’s amendments.People’s Partnership (PP) House leader Roodal Moonilal said yesterday that a date will be worked out in light of the 2015 Budget—to be delivered next Monday, plus debate on that—and completion of the Financial Intelligence Bill. The three senators’ support for the bill earned them the ire of some quarters.

Independent Liberal Party (ILP) chairman Jack Warner yesterday said “history will be extremely unkind” to the trio and the Government. 

Balgobin and others were abused by protesters while leaving the Parliament on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, after Balgobin signalled he might support the bill ahead of the voting Thursday. Balgobin was also the subject of fierce verbal attacks on Wednesday, via a morning radio talk show, when some callers also attacked the President for appointing certain senators to “support the PP Government.”

But yesterday, Mahabir said he didn’t envisage any problems or chaos ensuing on election night as a result. He said it was a simple formula which allows a third-place finisher who comes close to the second-place finisher to contest any secondary poll necessary. It will make the third-place finisher electable, he noted.

To qualify for the secondary poll, he said the third-place finisher has to get within five per cent of the second place contestant’s votes and must also get 25 per cent of the votes cast. He said in some places, mainstream parties could be the third-place finisher, such as the PNM might be in Chaguanas. On criticism of his actions by the ILP, he said the amendment could assist third-place finishers such as the ILP.

Mahabir said that like other Independents, he’d also had concerns about the way the bill arose and didn’t like the process. He said the Constitution Reform Commission’s report, which he got in December, said nothing of runoff:

“But when the bill came to me I examined the facts, as opposed to the hysteria and emotion, and logic led me to action and I was able to plug the major gaps with the amendments proposed,” he said. He said he’d expected the lawyers on the Independent and Opposition benches to ensure equity in the bill, rather than simply not vote on it.

“But I at least tried to ensure equity and I’m proud of the contribution I made to the situation and having voted against the tide. The amendment accepted by the Government is the fairest that could have been made in the circumstances,” Mahabir said.

Mahabir said PNM senators Faris al-Rawi and Fitzgerald Hinds played to the public galleries in the way they reacted to the amendments. On Hinds’ alleged insinuation at one point that Mahabir’s amendments were giving voice to the PM’s suggestion, Mahabir said he would be examining Hinds’ statement, which he felt was mischievous. He said he’d felt compelled to object to it, since he felt it was made for public consumption to tarnish the proceedings.

“And I won’t allow anyone to attack any member of the Independent bench and get away with it. People must have respect for the bench.” He said it was disappointing that the Opposition had an opportunity to send in a constitutional expert to examine the changes in an informed, professional way that might have rectified some issues, but instead focused on ensuring the bill wasn’t debated.

“Everything I said, I had good reasons to say. Nothing was personal. So when people make comments about us being traitors or betrayal, they should give reasons. “How did we betray T&T? How is the public undermined by what we did? They can say I’m wrong but I’ll say they’re simply inflammatory and malicious.” He said he hoped that the Government would do the necessary explanations on the bill.

Small—Better to act than not 
Independent Senator David Small said yesterday he had no qualms about the position he took in supporting the amended bill. “I had a responsibility to deal with the situation on the basis of all information in front of me and I felt the basis I took was the one to go with. “It wasn’t a matter of agreement or disagreement with colleagues. My position was shaped by all the data and analysis before me, and moreover what was in the best interest of the public.”

Small noted that some of his Independent colleagues voted against the bill on the basis of strong arguments that the  process was flawed where consultation was concerned. He said while he also had issues about the process, he felt if the Government was going forward with the bill—and not withdraw it or otherwise—he should try his best to ensure the resulting legislation was best for the public, rather than not doing anything about it other than voting against.

“I tried my best to present a logical argument that people could follow. This is not something I took lightly. “If you have two choices, one can say the process was flawed and not support and that’s fair. But I respectfully say, if another position is available and you have something (legislation) in front of you, it’s more in the public interest to ensure that if it does come out, you have to do what you can to try to ensure that interest is properly served.”

Small said he was pleasantly surprised yesterday to receive a number of congratulatory phone calls from citizens on his actions on the bill. He said one of them included a former PNM minister. Asked about negative comment on his action, Small said, “This is a democracy, so nothing will ever be 100 per cent negative or positive.”
Balgobin: Deal with issues, not ethnicity

Independent Senator Rolph Balgobin says the Independents put a lot of thought into the amendments, which were a product of discussions in Parliament over the three sessions. He said it didn’t matter where it originated from. “I think we improved the bill and I don’t subscribe to the view that it endangers third parties.”

Acknowledging that parties like the Congress of the People (COP) might have felt threatened, Balgobin said one of the COP leaders tried to engage some Independents—on setting the threshold low—but didn’t do so within the chamber. “But if the threshold was so low it would have made the runoff pointless. The bar had to be intelligent enough that a strong other party can force itself way into a runoff, but it cannot be so low as to replicate the election of 15 days before.”

He said the situation would now persuade mainstream parties to accommodate other parties. “To me, what is necessary is for all parties to stop speaking only for their own people. I heard a lot of emotion and political posturing and I say if you want to govern all the people, you have to be more open.” Balgobin said in a vibrant, developing democracy, one couldn’t try to change people’s minds by force and Independent senators were open to ideas from the public and whoever they interfaced with. 

But he said, “I found some of the reactions from the public quite unnecessary and vitriolic. Clearly these people are politically aligned, which as an Independent, I’m not.” He said he found it very interesting that when he voted against the Government, which he often did, he was considered sensible, even wise, but if he voted against the Opposition, people reverted to his ethnicity.

“That’s offensive and not to be condoned. I don’t think it’s appropriate to masquerade anti-social behaviour and political posturing as legitimate citizens’ protests. It’s silly and an insult to anyone’s intelligence. These were attempts to intimidate and it won’t work with me. I’m not afraid.” Balgobin said he’s received many calls from people who are senior decision-makers in T&T and who said the bill was a good thing. 

“I’m not losing any sleep on this issue and I’ll walk the public road without fear. I remain open to arguments to change my mind. But if the best you can do is cuss and identify me by my ethnicity, I don’t feel I’ll be changing my mind anytime soon.”


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