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Category: Trinidad Politics Date: 20 Oct 02

The casual observer at the ceremonial opening of the first session of the 8th Parliament of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago on October 17 with its inspection of the guard of honour outside the Red House, inside, the Parliamentary chamber packed with luminaries, diplomats and special guests, could be forgiven for once again mistaking it for one of Shakespeare’s comedies of error.

Admittedly, unlike the last two times, this was no farcical election of a speaker. There were no long-winded speeches voiced to kill time, or mocking nominations, nor was it that abrupt announcement by the Prime Minister of an election date. But it didn’t lack comedy.

What happened was: Both the Senate and House of Representatives convened simultaneously and the Clerks of both Houses read the proclamation to declare the opening of Parliament, and to elect the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate.

What it involved was: When Dr Linda Baboolal arrived at the opening of Parliament she was an ordinary member of the public. Under the Constitution, the seat of the President of the Senate becomes vacant just before the Senate is convened. As soon as the Senate was convened, Dr Baboolal was re-appointed President. After that exercise, she had to leave the Senate and go to President’s House to be sworn in as Acting President of the Republic because President Arthur NR Robinson had been ill and unable to perform his duties.

Dr Baboolal returned to the House of Representatives, not as President of the Senate, but as Acting President of Trinidad and Tobago, to read the “throne speech” where she addressed both Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament. In Dr Baboolal’s absence, the Vice President of the Senate resumed the business of the senate.

Thursday’s convoluted rigmarole magnified once more the nuances of our Constitution, revealing both its farcical nature and remarkable adaptable elasticity that somehow allows us to hobble on as a democracy.

For one prominent attorney, however, our Constitution does not serve the democratic interests of our people.

“We have had foisted on us a foreign constitutional model – the Westminster system comes out of English society that operates very differently to ours. It was never designed for our needs or to represent our people, but to keep an elitist status quo in power in the days of Governor and Queen, which has simply been replaced by President and Prime Minister.

“The classic Westminster model of government operates in the absence of written Constitutions. They have codes of conduct which we don’t. They have a system of good sense and a respect for morality in public affairs that allows them to do the decent thing so you have people resigning when they embarrass the government, or if their hands are caught in the cookie jar.”

This eminent attorney believes Trindadians demonstrate maturity and a sophisticated ability to handle complexity and potential conflict, despite, and not because of, the Constitution.

“The current structure of our Constitution states the party that commands a majority of seats in the House of Representatives has absolute control over the Government. Under our Constitution, the ruling party is entitled to pack the Senate with their own people — 16 out of the 31 senators are appointed by the President with advice from the Prime Minister, the Opposition gets only 6 Senate positions, and the President appoints the rest, at his discretion.

“In this case, 46 per cent of the country has lost, can resign itself for being disenfranchised for five years. Where it is a viable, aggressive, intelligent half of the population, what you have are seeds of grave discontent.”

The leaders of all our political parties have called for constitutional reform. Yet each leader, from Prime Minister Manning to Leader of the Opposition Basdeo Panday, to the leader of Citizens Alliance who called for citizens to “break the deadlock” (and in effect make him king maker) has capitalised (or wanted to) on our current Constitution’s essentially elitist framework to grab the near absolute power it provides.

“I think it is wrong,” said the attorney, “that once a government has been elected, there is little or no opportunity to call it into account for five years, that a Prime Minister can, once the election has been won, give top jobs to non-elected people and sideline those who have legitimately won their seats and have the support of the people they represent.”

The attorney clearly said: “Here is need for constitutional reform.” But what, he could not say. Yet, he believes constitutional reform will have to be deeply rooted in our own historical, cultural and social traditions and emerge from dialogue between our people.

While that sounds good – and while I agree what is urgently required now is not a facsimile of a model transplanted from elsewhere but something that is tailor-made for our own needs, the fact is, thus far, we have come up with nothing.

So the 8th sitting of Parliament left us with powerful reasons for constitutional reform, and equally powerful reasons for not tampering with it until some truly viable alternative is found.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur