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What is a better balance of power?

Last Thursday, John Spence, writing in the Daily Express, expressed the view that his conclusion about the draft constitution by Sir Ellis Clarke “would shift our governance very much in favour of increased power of a single individual, the Executive President.” (Daily Express, 22nd February, 2007, P 11).

While Spence does not come out against this overtly, the Principles of Fairness draft is very clear about the fact that it is a true presidential constitution that is not going to be based on a few amendments here and there by doing, as Spence suggests, to

(i) increase the power of Parliament;

(ii) increase the power of local government;

(iii) increase the power of ministers; and,

(iv) circumscribe the power of the Prime Minister.

This approach is not going to effect any kind of meaningful change in the society, but rather will perpetuate more of the same paralysis that exists in the system that renders it powerless to deal with the problems of crime, poverty, education, health care, etc.

Fundamental change is required that alters the basis upon which Parliament operates, and the Cabinet dominates it. Real participatory presidential democracy requires a full package of the following:

(i) complete separation of the Executive and the Legislature (no more overlaps between MPs and ministers if you want real accountability);

(ii) direct election by the people of their president if you want true democracy;

(iii) direct election of both Houses of Parliament if you want to extend true democracy to the Parliament (no more power for a nominated house to block the will of an elected house);

(iv) introduction of a division of the power of appointment between the Executive and the Legislature if you want real scrutiny and accountability in placing persons in high offices of State (let the President nominate and let the Parliament ratify or revoke);

(v) introduce proportional representation for the Senate to guarantee that the will of the electorate will be fairly reflected in that House, while keeping the House of Representatives as it is to retain geographical representation; and,

(vi) introduce parliamentary committees that can undertake real scrutiny of the Executive by removing ministers from their committees themselves and giving them powers to hold public inquiries and hearings on issues pertinent to their areas of jurisdiction by calling various officials before them.

This is a core package of essential components that must be held together if an executive presidency is to work at all in Trinidad and Tobago.

The Spence model is far too conservative to have any serious impact on our governance arrangements.

If we have not got the message by now, we ought to realise that nothing is going to change, once we keep the parliamentary model that we have, with a few amendments here and there.

Our attitudes to power have been conditioned by the fact that we operate a parliamentary system which has a core set of principles. A dressed-up version of that is not going to change the way that power is exercised in our society.

We need to break down the centralised power structure that we have, in which Parliament is the rubber stamp for the will of the Executive for all simple majority legislation, while the Opposition has the power to call all of the shots whenever there is special majority legislation.

The Ellis Clarke draft shifts power more in the direction of the Executive President, while the Principles of Fairness draft shifts power more in the direction of the two Houses of Parliament and away from the Executive President.

As a society, we have to decide which way we want to go. Or, do we stay in neutral and do nothing?

As far as the Senate is concerned, there is a recognition that something must be done to change it. Outside of T&T, other leaders have commented on this.

For example, former Jamaican Prime Minister PJ Patterson had this to say in 1995, when he was Prime Minister:

“It is worthy to note that the public fora held throughout Jamaica on constitutional reform were all of the view ‘that the people wanted an elected Senate.’

“It is also my view that Senators should also derive their authority from the people, and there ought to be some method by which they are elected, rather than in fact being appointed by two persons, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.

“I propose that: ‘At the time of holding an election, the contesting political parties file a slate of persons to constitute a panel from which Senators will be appointed in the new Parliament.’

“The Senators will be determined on the result of the elections to the House of Representatives, based on a proportional representative system, subject to a minimum qualification of 5 per cent of the popular vote.”

(A constitution for the people: Contribution to the debate on constitutional reform by Prime Minister the Right Honourable PJ Patterson, PC, QC, MP—Jamaica Information Service, December, 1995, PP 13–15).

While PJ Patterson was contemplating a revised Senate for Jamaica that placed the responsibility for choice in the hands of the electorate and would seek to introduce transparency into the nomination process, there is still a debate in T&Tabout whether such reforms are desirable for us.

The change has not yet been introduced in Jamaica, and the resistance here also signals that there will be a battle.

Some of our independent Senators have made a case about their diminished importance in our political process as a means of not being required to declare their assets and liabilities to the Integrity Commission.

If they think that way about themselves, then they have made a case for a fundamental reform of our Senate that would no longer include them, but allow for the will of the electorate to prevail.

Are we ready for that ?

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