By Andre Bagoo Friday, August 30 2013
PRIME Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar yesterday unveiled ground-breaking reform designed to bolster the power of voters in relation to the system of local government, ahead of this year’s elections — the date of which she confirmed as October 21.
Addressing the post-Cabinet media briefing, the Prime Minister said Parliament will be convened next Friday at 10.30 am for MPs to vote on a bill designed to introduce — for the first time ever — the concept or proportional representation to local politics.
The Municipal Corporations (Amendment) Bill, 2013, proposes a new system for the selection of aldermen directly related to the proportions of votes cast. Currently, aldermen are not elected by voters, but rather hand-picked by the elected councillors.
The proposed reform would see the aldermen not selected by councillors but rather effectively voted in based on the proportion of votes cast for each party.
Parties will supply the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) — the elections administrator — with advanced lists of candidates, separate from its councillor candidates, who will form part of a pool out of which the aldermen seats are allocated under the quota system to be used, which is formally called the Hare System.
The election of councillors will remain as is under the first past-the-post system which sees the candidate with the greatest number of votes elected. Victorious parties would still hold in-built majorities on corporations, but there will be minority voices reflective of the support given them by voters.
“This measure is designed to empower our voters and enhance citizen participation in all elections,” the Prime Minister said. “Every vote will now count and no vote will ever be wasted again in any local government election in this country because people may feel that their party does not have a chance to win in their district. Even if a single party were to win all of the seats on the first past-the-post system, there will more than likely be an allocation of at least one alderman to another party which will ensure that another political voice would sit on such a council.”
There will be four aldermen on each corporation, who will sit alongside the councillors. Currently, Port-of-Spain has four aldermen, San Fernando three, Arima two, Point Fortin two and Chaguanas two. The number of councillors will be unchanged: Port-of-Spain has 12 councillors, San Fernando nine, Arima, seven, Point Fortin, six, and Chaguanas, eight. Independent candidates who contest posts of councillors would not be eligible to become aldermen.
Persad-Bissessar called for political parties to back the measure saying, “I look forward to the support of all parties in this House for the measure which will strengthen our democracy and allow the electorate greater control over those who are put forward to serve as both councillors and aldermen.”
The Prime Minister also stated the reform was a possible prelude to even more far-ranging changes which could see proportional representation used at the level of general elections and possibly for the selection of Senators. These remain matters for ongoing constitutional reform.
“The concept of proportional representation has been advocated as a fairer and stronger system for many years now,” Persad-Bissessar noted. “This is a unique and attractive idea that I wish to introduce in our local government elections.” If the proportional representation measure is approved by the House of Representatives, a sitting of the Senate will be called on September 10, ahead of the date on which President Anthony Carmona is due to issue the formal election writ — September 16 — and ahead of the election’s nomination day of September 30.
The bill as currently drafted does not contain a proclamation clause, meaning it will come into force as soon as it is assented, a matter on which the Cabinet advises the President.
Proportional representation is currently used in several countries, including Australia, Costa Rica, Germany, Guyana, India, Mexico, Russia and Venezuela. The Prime Minister said a system of proportional representation would reduce the scope for undemocratic manipulation of the system.
“The time has come to have the aldermen elected by the population and not selected by the councillors after an election,” Persad-Bissessar said.
“Our examples over the years have shown us that this process can be manipulated and controlled by political deal-making and political indiscipline to the detriment of the population who have no say in what the councillors may want to do after they have been elected,” she said. “As a consequence of using this method the vacancies would be filled from lists of names that the political parties advertised to the public before the election was held so there will be no surprises,” she said.
The EBC will hold a special meeting in coming days to discuss the reform proposal. Officials yesterday held a meeting at EBC headquarters in Port-of-Spain to plan the October 21 poll. Persad-Bissessar suggested the amendment of the Municipal Corporations Act would be adequate for the purposes of spelling out the new procedure. She commented on the readiness of the EBC to implement the reform.
“The EBC really does not have to do anything much really at this time,” Persad-Bissessar said. “All that will happen at the moment, when you put forward your candidates, a letter is written by the political party for the district and at that same time a letter will be sent with a list of aldermen. Thereafter, the legislation itself spells out the formula.”
PP Government coalition parties all indicated support for the measures. COP political leader Prakash Ramadhar yesterday backed the bill, stating it was, “a new paradigm shift.”
“This is something that enhances democracy,” he said at the briefing. “It is a first but necessary and critical step.”
Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP) MP Dr Delmon Baker welcomed a system of proportional representation noting that even when a party gets a substantial number of votes it can end up with no voice. He cited the Tobago House of Assembly election this year which saw the TOP gain a large portion of votes but no seats.
“If you looked at what happened in Tobago 40 percent voted for the TOP yet in the Assembly there is not one single member,” Baker noted. “With the system being proposed, there may have been at least one councillor.” He said the monopoly in the Assembly now means debates there are “flat”. Labour Minister Errol Mc Leod said the legislation was a step towards, “participatory democracy.” Mc Leod is a former leader of the Movement for Social Justice, which pulled out of the coalition Government.
Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley, in a release, stated Government did not consult the PNM. He objected to the introduction of proportional representation on the eve of the election. Independent Liberal Party interim leader Jack Warner also criticised the timing of the reform.
Persad-Bissessar placed the reforms in the context of plans to introduce other legislative reforms including one to limit terms for prime minister and another to introduce a right of recall of MPs.