GOVT FIXING ELECTION DATE
By SEAN DOUGLAS Friday, August 29 2014
EVEN as she made a last minute plug for the support of Senators for the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 and its provisions of runoff ballots, limited terms for prime ministers and the electorate’s right to recall an errant MP, Prime Minister Kamla (PM) Persad-Bissessar also raised the likelihood of fixed election dates, as she wrapped up debate in the Senate last night.
She revealed that a draft bill to fix election dates is now before Cabinet.
Persad-Bissessar refuted the Westminister norm that in the event of a tie between the Government and a combined Opposition/Independent vote-tally on the bill, that Presiding Officer’s (Vice President James Lambert’s) casting vote must be to retain the status quo and against the Government’s bill, saying former Senate president, Dr Linda Baboolal, had once used her casting vote to back a Government bill. However she then said she thought it best to try to pass the bill with consensus instead of railroading it through a 15-15 tied Senate by the use of the casting vote.
The PM thanked all technocrats and parliamentarians who had contributed to the bill. She was warm and charming to most of the Independent bench, but while acknowledging that the Greek myth of the “Trojan Horse” - to which the bill was likened by Senator Helen Drayton - had involved a character called “Helen of Troy”, the PM scoffed that she now saw no sign of any face that launched a thousand ships.
Denying the bill is a Trojan Horse she said, “That’s a false analogy.”
Persad-Bissessar accused the Opposition People’s National Movement (PNM) of fear-mongering over the bill among the general population. She said the Opposition only offered “a rhetoric of fear, self-righteous indignation and misinformation”.
She accused temporary Senator Fitzgerald Hinds of condoning persons protesting outside of the parliamentary building (Tower D, Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain) whom she alleged had intimidated Senators during debate on the bill.
Hinds rose to deny any such thing and urged the remark be withdrawn but Lambert replied that Hinds had said it is the right of people to protest. Later she queried Hinds’ presence as a “reinforcement”, but was assured by Lambert that since Hinds had the right to be there to be counted as one of the six Opposition Senators, he also had the right to speak, although the Constitution is silent on the matter.
Persad-Bissessar said the United National Congress (UNC) supporters protesting for the bill outside Parliament had not intimidated anyone.
She justified the bill as being “the first time a Government has moved from promises to a concerted effort” towards constitutional reform. She said in February 2012 Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley criticised the Government for being in office 18 months without bringing any constitutional reform but now in 2014 the criticism was still coming.
Regarding term-limits, Persad-Bissessar said she had insisted that her term limit begin from 2010 and not from the more generous time of the 2014 bill. She teased that maybe the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) should also have terms limits to prevent one person as THA leader for 16 years, in a quip at THA Chief Secretary, Orville London.
“I’m prepared to face political harakiri - suicide - because I trust the people of Trinidad and Tobago,” she said.
The PM hit critics of the bill as being just “one lone voice crying like a wolf in the wilderness”, and instead assured that the TT electorate is very sophisticated.
She addressed concerns about the bill. She cited many sources who said the bill needs only a simple majority (legal luminaries such as Martin Daly, Anthony Vieira (an Independent Senator) and Michael de la Bastide, plus EBC head, Dr Norbert Masson).
The PM answered criticisms of the bill’s process and contents. She said the Constitutional Reform Commission was a ministerial committee and so could be chaired by a Minister who in fact is the best sort of person to ensure things get done.
She challenged claims that runoff electoral systems lead to instability by saying many countries with first-past-the-post systems are also “unsettled democracies”.
Further unlike the first-past-the-post system where there are no bronze medals but only gold (for Government) and silver (for Opposition), she said the runoff system would give hope for a third or fourth placed party to get a second chance.
She championed her prior idea of a $10 million each Constituency Development Fund by saying it is not a new idea, that it exists in Jamaica and that many rural areas in TT have traditionally suffered rural neglect.
The PM said the Section 34 scandal had originated in the Senate and as soon as the Government had learnt of it they repealed it with alacrity, resulting in no-one ever escaping the law because of it.
She boasted, “We are the only Government that brought an amendment to the Constitution to give internal self-government to Tobago.”
The PNM had not done so in 50 years of Independence, she said. “We remain committed to Tobago internal self-government.” The PM quoted former minister, Ralph Maraj’s press opinion column yesterday as hailing the bill to remove staleness from TT politics. Quoting Independent Senator David Small as saying the bill takes the country into unchartered waters, she said she agreed by inviting everyone to go together towards a more glorious future for the people of Trinidad and Tobago.