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VOTE AS YOU WANT

By Andre Bagoo Tuesday, August 12 2014

click on pic to zoom in

PRIME Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar yesterday announced that the vote on the historic bill proposing three far-reaching reforms will be one based on conscience, meaning individual MPs will be freed of the Whip and able to vote as they want.

As she piloted the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014, Persad-Bissessar said MPs would be freed of the Cabinet doctrine of collective responsibility, a move which potentially allowed dissenting views to be freely aired by individual Government MPs during what was expected to be a marathon debate on the reforms. The move also placed focus on the crucial Tobago MPs, given what had been the prospect of a possible Congress of the People (COP) rebellion on the matter going into the debate.

Though no division was required for passage of the simple majority bill, the Prime Minister further stated she would request a division so that individual MPs may register their vote.

“I am releasing all members of the Cabinet from the doctrine of collective responsibility,” Persad-Bissessar told MPs in the Parliament Chamber at the International Waterfront Centre, Wrightson Road, Port of Spain. “Vote according to your conscience rather than be bound by collective responsibility.” The Prime Minister said she was withdrawing the Whip given the importance of the legislation being debated.

“I do this Mr Speaker because of the very fundamental and important changes that we are making to enhance our democracy,” Persad-Bissessar said. “Mr Speaker, in the circumstances when the final vote is taken on this bill, all members of the Government side will not be bound by collective responsibility when recording their vote, but instead will take a conscience vote and be guided by their conscience as to whether they vote yea or nay.” She continued, “What this means is that when the final vote is taken I will call for a division, though no division is required, so that each member can then register their vote according to their conscience.”

Persad-Bissessar noted that under Cabinet’s collective responsibility, if a minister dissents publicly from a Government line she or he is fired or resigns. But Persad-Bissessar told her Ministers, “Today I am saying I give you that leverage and that leeway to vote as you think best as to whether you will seek to keep the promises we have made and the manner in which you will keep those promises and what other mechanisms we may suggest.” She continued, “Again I want to demonstrate that my Government is committed to respecting the voice of the minority while respecting the will of the majority. Because in a democracy it is the majority that will make the decisions.”

The Prime Minister’s announcement came one day after COP political leader Prakash Ramadhar said the COP would call for a delay on the vote and highlight the option of referring the legislation to a joint select committee of Parliament for further scrutiny. Chaguanas West MP Jack Warner said in his contribution to the debate yesterday that the Prime Minister’s move was because of the COP position.

In total, the People’s Partnership holds 26 seats in the chamber of 41, but without the COP that figure goes down to 21. The crucial Tobago MPs from the Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP), then, could prove key in the passage of the legislation, assuming a COP vote against the bill. The COP holds five seats in the 41-seat chamber. The TOP holds two seats. The UNC holds 18 seats at minimum. But Point-a-Pierre MP Errol Mc Leod, who won his seat on a UNC ticket, is listed as a member of the Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) on the Parliament website. The PNM has thirteen seats, while the ILP holds one.

Most MPs also sit in the Cabinet but there are three back-benchers: Caroni Central MP Dr Glenn Ramadharsingh; Fyzabad MP Chandresh Sharma and Cumuto/Manzanilla MP Colin Partap. This means the doctrine of Cabinet’s collective responsibility would have applied to all MPs but these three. The legislation requires a simple majority, lawyers have stated.

In her contribution, the Prime Minister defended the measures and accused the Opposition PNM of hypocrisy through having similar measures in their own party constitution arrangements, but not backing them nationally. She joked the bill being debated was, in a sense, a “PNM bill”.

Persad-Bissessar also assured that several other bills, including one to introduce referenda, will be brought. She said legislation introducing proportional representation in the Senate and bolstering the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions will also “be considered to be brought.”

“What we are doing is not the end of constitutional amendment,” the Prime Minister said. “It cannot be that we must do things in the same way that we always do.” She expressed no fear of the outcome of the 2015 general election and, once more, said there will be no early election: the Tenth Parliament will be dissolved in June 2015.

“I am keeping my promise and I will do so and have no fear of what the electorate will do,” the Prime Minister said. “These are promises we kept and we are keeping the promises because they make for better governance and place more power in the hands of the people.” Persad-Bissessar noted four official Government reports proposing constitution reform through successive administrations from 1974 to 2010.

“My Government is the first which has had the political courage to bring about substantial reforms for the people of the country,” she said.

The Prime Minister defended term limits for prime ministers, the right of recall and the 50 percent/runoff procedure, and said the measures would bestow on the people, “that which is their right, namely power.” In a statistical analysis, the Prime Minister stated the 50 percent/runoff procedure will enhance democracy and protect minority parties. She said runoffs would have been possible in the years 1966 right up to 2010 which might have seen some parties which did not win seats win seats. For example, she said in 1991 the National Alliance for Reconstruction may have been in line to contest two runoffs. She said runoffs will deepen democracy not take it away.

“More elections can never be dictatorial,” she said, alluding to the supplemental vote taken between the top two candidates if no candidate has an outright majority of the votes cast. “A constituency will be represented by a majority. This will be fairer representation.”

The Prime Minister once more stated the bill required only a simple majority as its provisions did not touch sections of the Constitution that had been entrenched. She said if there was a case that the legislation had “implied amendments” that argument should be made in Parliament. She further stated the Privy Council had ruled already on the question, in relation to an amendment of Section 49 of the Constitution years ago. The Privy Council had ruled a special majority was not needed to insert Section 49A of the Constitution, she said.

Persad-Bissessar also thanked the members of the Constitution Reform Commission, including member Dr Merle Hodge.

In relation to the Opposition PNM’s line on the bill, she accused the PNM of hypocrisy, fear- mongering and double-speak saying that party had effectively adopted terms limits for its leaders, a right of recall of leaders and runoffs at internal elections.

“What is good for the goose is good for the gander,” she said. Of the Opposition party’s leader Dr Keith Rowley, she paraphrased Shakespeare’s line in Hamlet, saying, “He doth protest too much.” She quoted several PNM internal party rule papers and its own constitution which had similar provisions to the ones being debated.

“This was clearly a PNM bill and therefore I cannot see that those on the other side have the moral authority of consultative authority to not support these measures,” she said. The Prime Minister said there will be no early election.

“I will run the term of this Government,” she said. “When the Parliament dissolves in June according to the law, election can be held anytime thereafter but must come before September. So those who are getting angsty, stay within the law because we intend to follow the law.”

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