FIGHT TO THE END
By Andre Bagoo Wednesday, August 27 2014
KAMLA Persad-Bissessar, the Prime Minister, yesterday said she was willing to risk “political suicide” over the question of the Constitutional (Amendment) Bill 2014, as she told Senators it will be for the people to judge the current Government on the issue at a coming general election.
In a rare appearance in the Senate, the Prime Minister piloted the bill, acknowledging that aspects of it had triggered “disquiet” and “concern”.
She said specific details of the mechanisms of implementation of the proposals could be negotiated, but was silent on calls for the bill to be referred to a Senate committee. Instead, she strongly suggested the issue was likely to forge ahead and be left to the electorate at the next election, saying reform has been in the air for 50 years and now was the time to “walk the walk”.
The Prime Minister said, “I say again for those who are of the view that I am committing political suicide, I say I am prepared to take that risk because I am convinced that we cannot continue to do business as usual. We cannot expect change by the same ole same ole way of doing things. We promised change.”
Persad-Bissessar further stated, “I am mindful, as I enter the political battlefield, that this may be political suicide. However, I am not daunted by the risks of my own political survival because I believe that is trumped by our desire to keep our promises to enhance our democracy. As a politician; as Prime Minister, my interest is not for my political survival, but my interest must be what is in the best interest, and if we cannot get the best interest of the people, what is in the better interest of the people of Trinidad and Tobago.”
In the first hint that the Constitution reform is set to be a general election issue possibly before 2015, the Prime Minister said, “Come next year – or whenever within the constitutional framework for the calling of an election – the liberty of the people will determine whether we were right or whether we were wrong in bringing this legislation today....If this thing is so bad what will happen? They will vote us out in 2015. The electorate will have the final say.”
The Prime Minister has consistently maintained that no early election would be held before they are due, between July and September 2015.
On the claim of a lack of consultation on the proposals, the Prime Minister said, “Some are saying delay the bill. But delay the bill for how long? We have been talking Constitution reform for nearly 50 years. The time has come not just to talk the talk but walk that walk.”
It was the first time a prime minister piloted a bill in the Senate in recent memory, Parliament officials said. The Senate was yesterday poised to sit late to consider the bill, which proposes a majority threshold/runoff; a right of recall and a ten-year term limit for prime ministers. The Prime Minister indicated the sitting will continue today if necessary.
Of the runoff – which involves an automatic contest between the top two candidates if no candidates secures more than 50 percent of the votes cast – Persad-Bissessar said, “I know the runoff is the one most people are concerned with.” Quoting Aristole’s Politics, she said the underlying principle of the runoff was the supremacy of the majority.
“The majority must be supreme,” Persad-Bissessar said. “This is where the runoff position comes into play.” She said the runoff was “a refinement of the first-past-the-post” which “will result in fairer representation.” On the claim that the runoff proposal was designed to steal a general election, she said this claim had not been shown to have any merit given the unpredictable outcome of runoff polls and the argument that the runoff better reflected the will of the people.
“How can it be said that giving the people a greater say is stealing an election?” Persad-Bissessar said. “In what way will runoff allow the stealing of an election?”
On the claim that a runoff eliminates third parties, Persad-Bissessar said such third parties will have a second chance to contest the seat under a runoff. She noted the ONR (Organisation for National Reconstruction) and COP (Congress of the People) – parties that gathered thousands of votes but no seats in past elections – would have had a chance to win them under runoffs.
“The data shows that contrary to the concerns that a runoff will kill off the third party this will in fact allow the third party to survive,” Persad-Bissessar said. “You can have a second chance with the runoff ballot.” On concerns of instability during the 15-day waiting time for runoffs, the Prime Minister said there were enough provisions in the Constitution in place.
“There is a transition built into the Constitution,” Persad-Bissessar said. She also stated there have been delays between elections and appointments in the past. She said where there is already a clear majority (21 seats or more) the President will remain empowered to appoint a prime minister. Where there is no clear majority, he will await the results of runoffs for 15 days. “Should there be a tie, then the President will have to await the results of a runoff,” Persad- Bissessar said. She said while it was possible for a runoff in every single seat, that was not likely. On claims that a ruling administration would pillage the Treasury pending results during the 15- day wait, the Prime Minister said, “If that Government had been there for five years, you think they will use that time to raid the Treasury?”
However, Persad-Bissessar suggested mechanisms for implementation for the other proposals – such as the threshold for recall petitions – could be negotiated on the floor. She was silent on the possibility of referral of the bill to a Senate joint select committee.
“There can be discussions as to the mechanisms to effect these proposals,” Persad-Bissessar said.
In relation to the recall proposal – which requires initial support of ten percent of the electorate of a seat, then 66 percent for a successful recall petition – the Prime Minister said the Government was open to changes to the percentages.
“We can discuss the percentage needed,” Persad-Bissessar said. “Those are things within the mechanisms proposed that can be negotiated and discussed.” With the recall also being subject to a window of occurring within the fourth year, the Prime Minister stated there was a need for enough time to pass to allow an MP to perform. However, she suggested the window could be a “mid-term” which observers said yesterday normally approximates to the third year.
Of the term limit for prime ministers, Persad-Bissessar said, “The two-term limit will eliminate the concept of maximum leadership.” She said some had said this was unprecedented.
“Because it has not been done before does not mean that it cannot be done here,” the Prime Minister said.
The Prime Minister began her contribution at 1.40 pm and ended at 2.40 pm. All Independent and Opposition Senators were present in the chamber at the International Waterfront Centre, Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain, with the exception of Independent Sharon Le Gall, who arrived at the chamber at 2.05 pm, mid-way through the Prime Minister’s speech. During her contribution, the Prime Minister twice referred to the presiding officer, Senate Vice- President James Lambert, as “Mr Speaker” and apologised for the error. Of her unprecedented appearance at the Senate, Persad-Bissessar said, “I am here Sir, some may say unprecedented, because I am of the view that we must not lead from the tower. We must lead from the battlefield. And because I believe these reforms will go a long way for a better widening and deepening of our democracy I stand here to, as best as I can, put our position. But also, very importantly, to listen to the concerns expressed by honourable senators during the course of the debate.” The last time a prime minister appeared in the Senate was in 2009 when former Prime Minister Patrick Manning appeared in the Senate to support a measure to postpone local government elections for a third year. He did not pilot that bill, however, as that duty fell to his wife, then Local Government Minister Hazel Manning. As Prime Minister, Patrick Manning also made Senate appearances in 2005 and 2003, but to make special statements on a situation involving proposed disciplinary action against the sitting Chief Justice Satnarine Sharma and on a Caricom conference respectively.
“We are quite prepared to listen to this debate. I think honourable senators are well-poised to bring a non-partisan view to the table and we look forward to hearing those views,” Persad- Bissessar said. “We will take your suggestions; your contributions on board and should you seek further information we will seek our best here to provide same.”
Overall, Persad-Bissessar said the proposals would give more power to the people and while other proposals are also needed, those would be forthcoming.
“The position of the Government and our intention is to take that power, some of that power, out of the hands of the politicians to place in the hands of the people,” Persad-Bissessar said. “Of course more reforms are needed, of course the Constitutional Reform Commission recommended many other reforms. The other areas we promised will come.” She said the Commission had called for discrete proposals requiring simple majorities to be passed first, before more contentious overhauls, requiring special majorities. She said other promised measures included: fixed general election dates and mechanisms for referenda.
(See Pages 5 &15A)