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The Great Debate

By Andre Bagoo Monday, August 11 2014

DEBATE on far-reaching reforms which could reshape the terms of prime ministers and MPs and change the way representatives are voted into office is due to begin this morning in Parliament.

In what will be the first debate under new Standing Orders, MPs are due to consider the provisions of the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014, which was tabled last week by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

All Government MPs have been instructed by Dr Roodal Moonial, the Government Whip, to be prepared to speak in the debate, if necessary. Though the length of the debate is not yet clear, the Senate has been convened to sit next Tuesday in the event that debate on the measures is completed within the week.

The Prime Minister, in a statement issued to Newsday in response to queries, yesterday defended the Government’s proposals for two-term limits for prime ministers, a right of recall of MPs and a 50 perIcent threshold for the election of MPs through a run-off procedure.

“We have spent a good amount of time listening and providing the avenues for the people to share their views on how constitutional reform should proceed,” the Prime Minister said. “Now, having heard the people, we are taking action by giving more power to the people.”

The Prime Minister said the changes were recommended by the Constitution Reform Commission after a long period of public consultation. “The changes we are taking forward were recommended by the Commission after 21 public consultations and you will note that they focus on accountability, service and stronger democratic power being held by the people,” Persad-Bissessar said. She criticised the Opposition’s release, last week, of its own privately drafted reforms stating those reforms have been drawn up in secret.

The Prime Minister said, “I have just described the very careful process of wide consultation that went into the proposals I have put forward. Dr Rowley cannot possibly think it sensible to have proposals drawn up in secret, by only PNM members, and forced on the population.”

Persad-Bissessar continued, “How can you come to a debate on democracy, and power to the people, by forcing people to accept something you never consulted them on? It doesn’t make sense, and it is an insult to the freedom and democracy that people want.” At the same time, the Prime Minister did not rule out possible amendments to the legislation on the Parliament floor, stating the purpose of the debate was to listen and any amendment would depend on the nature of whatever suggestions are advanced.

“It depends on the nature of the amendments suggested: the purpose of the debate is to allow views to be aired and to listen,” the Prime Minister said when interviewed. “I am working on my presentation, reading all of the comments, taking into consideration the views of all thus far and continuing to prepare. We are prepared and all of the Government MPs have been instructed to be prepared to speak in the event that it is necessary. If it is necessary, all will speak.”

Asked to respond to concerns that the debate process may be taking place too quickly, given the nature of the reforms, the Prime Minister said that the matter was not a “one and done” deal and that the Parliament system itself contains a natural delay.Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley said he will be speaking in the debate. While the Opposition last week offered its own proposed reforms, he said he was not aware of any plans to table any amendments to the legislation. He said he was going into the debate to listen.

“It all depends on what the Government says and does,” Rowley, the Diego Martin West MP, said. “I am waiting to see what the Government says and does. I am not aware of any plans to table any amendment. Our position is very clear.”

































“When something goes through the House of Representatives that is not the end of the matter as there is a built-in delay,” the Prime Minister said. “It is not a one and done matter. We have a bi- cameral legislature. We have a natural delay between any passage in the House of Representatives and when a matter moves to the Senate. It is not a one and done deal.”

The Prime Minister could not state how long the debate will last, saying this would depend on the shape the debate takes.

“I cannot anticipate how the debate will go,” she said. “But every member who wishes to speak will be allowed to speak. It is really on the floor that the debate takes it shape.”

The Prime Minister did not comment on questions over the status of an “addendum” of the Constitution Reform Commission, submitted privately to the Office of the Prime Minister in July.

Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley said he will be speaking in the debate. While the Opposition last week offered its own proposed reforms, he said he was not aware of any plans to table any amendments to the legislation. He said he was going into the debate to listen.

“It all depends on what the Government says and does,” Rowley, the Diego Martin West MP, said. “I am waiting to see what the Government says and does. I am not aware of any plans to table any amendment. Our position is very clear.”

The Opposition last week rejected the proposed 50 per cent threshold for the election of MPs through a contest of the top two winners for any given seat and described the other two reforms as “non-issues”. The PNM proposed full-time Mps; limits to Cabinet’s size; more powers to Parliament committees and a wider process in relation to the selection of a president, among others. Opposition Chief Whip Marlene Mc Donald did not immediately respond to several calls and messages yesterday.

Today’s debate will be the first debate under the new Standing Orders. Speaker of the House of Representatives Wade Mark yesterday said, “I am just the servant of the House. I cannot predict what will take place. But there is no challenge. We crafted and approved these new rules collectively and practice notes are due to be issued by the end of August.”





[Box]



CONSTITUTION (AMENDMENT) BILL 2014



Clause 6 - right of recall



...(12) Where the Elections and Boundaries Commission is satisfied that the petition has received the support of at least two-thirds of all the persons who are registered to vote in the constituency specified in the petition and that the requirements of subsections (10) and (11) have been met, the Chairman of the Elections and Boundaries Commission shall so certify in the appropriate place on the petition and shall immediately forward the petition to the Speaker.

(13) At the next sitting of the House of Representatives after he receives the petition, which sitting shall be convened as soon as practicable and, in any event, before the expiration of four years from the first sitting of Parliament after the last general election, the Speaker shall inform the House of Representatives of his receipt of the petition and announce that the seat of the member specified in the petition is vacant.”.



Clause 8 - run-off polls



8. Section 73 of the Constitution is amended by inserting after subsection (2), the following subsections:

“(3) A candidate shall not be elected in accordance with subsection (1) as the member of the House of Representatives for a constituency, unless he obtains more than fifty percent of the votes cast in the constituency.

(4) Where a poll (hereinafter in this section referred to as “the first poll”) is held and no candidate is elected in accordance with subsections (1) and (3) as the member of the House of Representatives for a constituency, a supplementary poll between those candidates who earned

the highest and second highest number of votes shall be held (a) on the fifteenth day following the date of the first poll; or (b) if the fifteenth day under paragraph (a) falls on a Saturday, Sunday or public holiday, on the first following day that is not a Saturday, Sunday or public holiday,

and the list of electors for the purposes of the supplementary poll shall be the same list which was used for the purposes of the first poll.”.



Clause 9 - term limits for prime ministers



9. Section 76 of the Constitution is amended – (a) in subsection (1) –(i) by inserting after the words “Where there is occasion”, the words “, whether following a general election or otherwise,”; (ii) by inserting after the words “Prime Minister” in the last place where they occur, the words “; save that no one shall be appointed who has served ten years or more as Prime Minister, whether or not such service is continuous or has been interrupted”; (b) by inserting after subsection (1), the following subsections:

“(1A) No person shall hold the office of Prime Minister for more than ten years and six months,

whether or not such service is continuous or has been interrupted, and on attaining that length of service the Prime Minister shall vacate his office.”

(1B) In calculating the length of service of a Prime Minister, no account shall be taken of any time spent serving as acting Prime Minister without having been appointed Prime Minister.

(1C) Where, after the first poll of a general election, one or more supplementary polls are, or are

to be, held in accordance with section 73(4), the President shall not appoint the Prime Minister before the results of all the supplementary polls have been declared, but the current Prime Minister and Ministers shall remain in office until they are required to vacate office in accordance with section 77(2)(a) and (3)(a), respectively.”



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