Former CJ: Making minority votes count, good for elections
By Andre Bagoo Saturday, August 31 2013
FORMER Chief Justice Michael de la Bastide yesterday urged the population not to illogically dismiss the proposal to introduce proportional representation in local government without considering its merits, saying the system would potentially be fairer and result in more meaningful elections.
De la Bastide – who sat on the Hugh Wooding Commission which in 1974 first proposed the concept of proportional representation in local politics – commented as the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) indicated that there should be no impediment to implementing the proposal in the October 21 election once sound law is passed in the Parliament.
“In our report, we had recommended a mixed system of proportional representation in Parliament,” de la Bastide noted. “The current proposal appears to be almost a pilot project in the context of the local government councils and I think its interesting because I am still in support of proportional representation in a mixed form. It helps to soften some of the inequities produced by the first-past-the-post system.”
He continued, “For example, the first past the post system at the Tobago House of Assembly is generally unfortunate. It results in bodies in which there is only one party and that seems undesirable for the Chief Secretary in Tobago. That would not happen under a proportionate representation system.”
The retired President of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) said the proposed system of proportional representation – which would see the party with the most councillor votes voted in and given the lion’s share of aldermen positions while allowing minority parties to have a voice on corporation bodies – could encourage voters.
“I think that people who are reluctant to vote because they don’t want to vote for either of the major parties and think they are wasting a vote because they perceive one party is going to win may be encouraged to vote,” he said. “This could make the vote more meaningful. You can do so by counting every vote and giving effect to it.”
De la Bastide also noted the problems created by use of a purely first-past-the-post system.
“I think that it is being demonstrated in the past that the first-past-the-post system can produce some very odd results,” he said “Going back into our own history. ONR contested and got 90,000 votes and they did not get a single seat. They had no voice in the Parliament.” He said the system could give fledgling parties a chance. “It might allow a middle-class party that has a significant following in the voting population to get a voice, he said.”
De la Bastide knocked knee-jerk rejection of the proposals – to be debated in Parliament next Friday – as illogical. He said, “It is a pity that this bill is being seen in some quarters as politically expedient and is being interpreted as merely a political tactic because I think it deserves to be considered on its merit. I think the reaction is painting this legislation as something intended to mitigate an anticipated loss.”
He continued, “it appears that the Opposition and persons in and out of Parliament appear to be dismissing it without considering it on the merit. Even if it is being introduced for the reasons they suggest, logically that is no reason not to consider the bill on its merits. But of course logic and politics make strange bed-fellows.”
He continued, “The motivation does not absolve the rest of the Parliament from examining it and seeing if there is any merit; if it needs fine-tuning; and adjustment to produce a result that is fairer and more democratic.”
Another member of the Wooding Commission, Professor Selwyn Ryan, said the system would be fairer. His only concern was that the reform not be rushed. “I support the principle which is a fair principle which can be implemented in a number of ways. My only concern is with the haste with which it is being implemented.”
He said the concept of proportional representation was long overdue. “It has been in the pot since 1973,” he said. He noted it was raised in the Wooding Commission, Hyatali Commission and by former President Ellis Clarke in his reform proposals.
De la Bastide queried whether standardisation of the number of aldermen to four at all corporations might create disparities in the significance of aldermen to each individual bodies. He also questioned if the method of calculation would effectively set a minimum bar of 25 per cent of votes in order to have a chance of getting an alderman seat.
EBC chairman Dr Norbert Masson said the EBC was studying the legislation. He queried if other sections of the Municipal Corporations Act 1990 – which appear inconsistent with the proposed amendment – would be deleted.
“I don’t see any big problem in the implementation of these measures,” Masson said. He said the main modifications would be the provision of an advance list of aldermen and a change in how the results are communicated to the Minister of Local Government.