For three years, no query on EBC report
By Andre Bagoo Sunday, September 8 2013
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Led by Opposition Leader Keith Rowley, left, PNM Mps Donna Cox, Nileung Hypolite and Patricia McIntosh pound their desks in support of colleague, MP C...
THAT a statutory report on district boundaries is approved by Parliament before any local government election takes place is a basic requirement set out in the decades-old law and practices governing the process.
Yet, three years after the last local government election, not a single Parliament MP questioned why no report from the EBC was tabled in the chamber in relation to the upcoming October 21 poll.
The report is not prepared by the executive government. It is prepared by the independent Elections and Boundaries Commission - the body set up by the Constitution to administer all elections. It deals with the basic information political parties need to know in order to plan their campaigns such as boundaries and the populations demarcated in voting districts.
The EBC submits its report to the Ministry of Local Government and the Minister tables this report — in the form of an order to be signed by the President — in Parliament for approval.
Section 4(3) of the 1967 Elections and Boundaries Commission (Local Government and Tobago House of Assembly) Act reads:
“As soon as ...the Commission has submitted a report under subsection (1)(a), the Minister shall lay before the House of Representatives, for its approval the draft of an Order by the President for giving effect, whether with or without modification, to the recommendations contained in the report, and that draft may make provision for any matters which appear to the Minister to be incidental to, or consequential upon the other provisions of the draft.”
Once this process is triggered, there is no turning back.
The EBC’s report was submitted to the former Minister of Local Government Chandresh Sharma in July 2011. At the time, the local government election was not yet due and it was not tabled in Parliament and debated. There is no deadline in the law by which an EBC report must be approved. A report is prepared at intervals ranging between two to three years under the law.
According to the chairman of the Elections and Boundaries Commission, Dr Norbert Masson, an election should be held on the basis of the most recent report.
“An election should be based on the most recent information available and should proceed on that basis,” he told Sunday Newsday yesterday. While it is possible to have an election based on an older report, this is not desirable. Further, in a situation where the EBC has already submitted its report to the minister under Section 4(3), not approving this report in Parliament and proceeding on an older report triggers a grey area in the law which would loom over any election.
“Before any election, the report has to be submitted to the minister who drafts the order and when approved it is passed to the President to be signed,” Masson said. “Until that draft order is prepared you can’t proceed.”
The chairman reacted to the feigned furore on Friday triggered by the late timing of debate of the EBC’s 2011 report thus:
“It just goes to show that nobody pays attention to the EBC. Politicians are not paying attention to the rules and processes that govern the elections. The EBC for them is like a machine: used every now and again but left covered with tarpaulin and ignored otherwise.”
Last month, Newsday reported that the EBC’s July 2011 report had been submitted to the Ministry of Local Government but was yet to be tabled or debated in Parliament.
The motion to approve the EBC’s 2011 report was placed on the Order Paper circulated among all MPs last week. The item was the first matter under the heading of “Government Business”. It was stated on Friday that electronic copies of the report were circulated among MPs, but this could not be independently confirmed.
During debate of legislation to introduce local government reform on Friday, Government Whip Dr Roodal Moonilal suspended that debate and pulled forward debate on the EBC report. Opposition MPs and ILP MPs Jack Warner and Herbert Volney complained bitterly, bemoaning that they have not seen the contents of the report before that time.
They voted against the report produced by the independent EBC, a seeming contradiction since that report contains the most up-to-date information needed for the successful administration of the October 21 election which they vociferously called for in face of Government’s suggestion last month of the possibility of a postponement. Since nobody questioned the lack of a report for three years, Friday was the first opportunity for MPs to read the report. The recommended changes were that:
(i) there should be one additional electoral district in each of the electoral areas of Couva/Tabaquite/Talparo and Princes Town;
(ii) there should be changes in the boundaries of: (a) sixteen electoral districts of the electoral areas of four Municipal Corporations; and (b) twenty-three electoral districts of the electoral areas of three Regional Corporations.
It is clear that because no question had been asked in Parliament, the MPs found themselves in a position whereby they were vulnerable to a clear strategy on the part of the Government to ambush them with the report.
The Government’s strategy worked to its advantage on Friday, seemingly catching Warner off guard just as he was about to contribute to debate on the bill on proportional representation.
The Opposition, too, seemed to be caught off guard by the move. Most of its MPs would have joined the PNM in 2007 and knowledge of the processes involved might have been rusty given that party’s own election to delay the local government elections for years. But this was not the case with Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley who stated, “I am not angry. I am not surprised. I am worried for Trinidad and Tobago.” Many noted Rowley did not appear as concerned when the elections were never even held under the PNM.
Yet, the fact remains that the developments were only made possible because of the failure of MP s to raise questions on the non-appearance of the report before Friday.
That failure is all the more striking since the report is actually crucial for any political party planning its election strategy. And that an election was coming was not a surprise: it is clear that the Opposition parties have been campaigning aggressively for the elections to be held in anticipation of what they say will be a “wipe-out” of the PP in the poll.