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Senate in second debate on Runoff

By Andre Bagoo Friday, August 29 2014

click on pic to zoom in
Second round: (Left to right) Independent Senators Dr Dhanayshar Mahabir, Anthony Vieria and David Small in what turned out to be
Second round: (Left to right) Independent Senators Dr Dhanayshar Mahabir, Anthony Vieria and David Small in what turned out to be "a second debate" on...

DEBATE on the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 - proposing a majority runoff for election of MPs, term limits for prime ministers, and a right of recall of MPs - continued last night in the Senate.

As at press time, the Government accepted several changes during the Committee Stage including:

* changing the initial threshold two petitioners will have to cross to get a recall petition going from 10 percent to 20 percent of a seat’s electorate (proposed by Independent David Small and backed by Independents Dr Rolph Balgobin and Dr Dhanayshar Mahabir);

* broadening the window of recall from in the fourth year to after two years and six months (proposed by Mahabir and backed by Small and Balgobin); and

* giving the Elections and Boundaries Commission control, from its offices, of the initial application for recall (tabled by the Attorney General);

Several amendments were proposed by Independents and tabled by the Government.

There was an early division taken on the question of including clause 5 (right of recall) in the bill. The result of that division was 19 for, 10 against and one abstention. Independents Balgobin, Mahabir, Small and Rev Joy Abdul-Mohan backed the clause staying in the bill, alongside the Government. Independent Sharon Le Gall abstained.

Among the amendments discussed at the Committee Stage, Small called for a higher threshold to get the first stage of the two-stage recall petition off the ground.

“I’m proposing that the threshold be increased to 20 percent,” the Independent said. “There are small numbers in the constituencies. It is a high hurdle but it is not such as to stymie the measure. You need to have a gap that is not too wide but is not too narrow. Twenty percent is a more reasonable number.”

The Prime Minister responded, “You are pushing a very open door. We had discussions as to what threshold we will put in play. if too high, nobody will get recall. I think we will be happy to agree. It acts as a filter to prevent busybodies.”

Balgobin added, “We feel that 20 percent is better than 10 because it avoids frivolous matters. It gives a reasonable threshold having regard to the small thresholds,” Mahabir stated. “I see the potential for mischief in this recall process and instability in the situation where there is a potential tight result. The 20 per cent threshold is something we would be in support of.” PNM Senator Faris Al Rawi asked what the EBC had to say on the 20 percent figure. The Prime Minister responded, “Whilst we may take guidance from the EBC the policy decision will be from the Executive. Are you asking us to accept a directive from the EBC? I think Senator Small proposed it. Perhaps he can respond.”

Small said, “I did not pluck the figure from the air. Ten percent could be 1,800. It is very small. Twenty percent would be a safer number.” He said he had a telephone conversation with an expert on the matter.

On widening the time-line of recall, Mahabir called for, “two-and-a-half years instead of three years.” Balgobin added, “I should not need more than two years to decide if you are more than a waste of time. I don’t want to be saddled with you going into a third year. If I wait for 2.5 years by the time the process is finished it will be three years.”

Small added, “When a minister comes into office it takes a minister six months to come up to speed, especially a brand new minister. I agree with two years inclusive of the six months.” The Prime Minister said, “You need to give a man time to settle in.... Mid-term? So be it. Can you make those amendments Mr AG?”

On the issue of criteria for recall, the Attorney General said, “In many jurisdictions they have opted to not have reasons. When there were it led to a lot of litigation. People apply for judicial review on that stage and it is stuck in the court. The MP can then tie it up in court until he reaches the finish line. It would be better to leave it open.”

On the issue of the two-thirds pass mark for the recall to take effect, Ramlogan said, “We are giving people a power and it is for them to use it or not.” The Prime Minister said, “That threshold has to be high to prevent busybodies from destabilising.”

The runoff proposal remained intact. Of this, Attorney General Ramlogan said in the Committee Stage, “What we are proposing is one election with two polls. That falls within the refinement or adjustment of first-past-the-post.”

The Committee Stage lasted began at 7.44 pm and continued beyond 10 pm.

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