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Reflections on the Proposed Constitution

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I am proposing here to create a context within which to examine the proposed constitution for certainly it does not exist in abstract. There are a number of underlying issues and assumptions that must form part of the debate and inform the conclusions we arrive at about the constitution. Central to the move toward creating a new constitution is a quest for better governance.{{more}} In fact Prime Minister Gonsalves himself noted that “Constitutional reform is not a political abstraction.” In 2002, January 20-22 a Conference on Constitutional Reform in the Caribbean sponsored by the OAS and UNDP was held in Barbados and our Prime Minister was a key figure at that Conference. In the final report of that conference under the caption- “Governance: The Heart of the Matter,” the following is stated “At the heart of the movement for constitutional reform is the widespread and mounting desire for better governance- governance that will respond effectively to the complex dynamic of the current epoch, governance based on the fullest possible participation of citizens to ensure more equitable societies.” So participation is critical and in any democracy the understanding of the nature and functions of government is absolutely essential since it is this understanding that is a prerequisite for its success.

In 1971 a Constitution Commission was established in Trinidad and Tobago to make recommendations for the revision of their Constitution. The Report of the Commission was presented to the Governor General on January 22, 1974. In its introduction some important issues were raised that are quite relevant to what is happening here. They analysed the existing constitution in order to provide a background to what they were doing and to inform their deliberations. On page 6 of the report the following is stated: “In reality the Westminster political system has a propensity to become transplanted into dictatorship when transplanted in societies without political cultures which support its operative conventions.” This, too adequately describes our own experience with the Westminster model. What worked in England didn’t work down here. My focus, however, is on the issue of transplant to societies without political cultures which support the operative conventions. This is something that must be borne in mind and comes forcefully to me when I hear talk of creating backbenchers. You cannot create a backbench by playing around with numbers.

What the report says later is important and key to how things function especially in small societies like our own; “Party discipline, loyalty and an instinct for survival also make it highly unlikely that a party which has a majority in Parliament will fail to support its team.” So what back bench are we talking about? Can or will we ever have a situation where elected members of a Governing party will ever dare to advocate positions not in keeping with that of their party and particularly of the Prime Minister. We have had the experience of 30 years under the Independence constitution. I am sure when the members of our Constitutional Review Commission set about their task they would have looked at the experiences of the workings of the existing constitution and would have attempted to understand the political culture that feeds the politics of the country. But the details and their conclusions are what matter!

The other issue that comes into play has to do with patronage. The State is the largest employer and this has implications. The Trinidad and Tobago Commission’s Report states, “The use of patronage to win over or silence critics is undoubtedly universal but in a small society such as ours it can be terribly effective.” They refer to Trinidad and Tobago as a small society and it is indeed small but St.Vincent and the Grenadines is an even smaller society. Moreover it does not have the size and strength of the private sector that our larger neighbour has. So the nature of the society has constantly to be kept in mind when recommendations are made for any revision of the constitution. We have to understand why things do not work the way they are supposed to and quite often the kind of society and the political culture that exists are critical to all of this. We are not dealing with an abstract. We are dealing with real things.

The issue of the power of the Prime Minister is one that will undoubtedly be hotly debated. Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves was widely quoted as saying that Prime Ministers have too much power. This is coming from the horse’s mouth. Again let us look at the T & T report. It notes that in Britain there are ‘important constraints’ that limit the powers of the Prime Minister. And what are these? The existence of a vigorous press, powerful interest groups and an alert public opinion! So the restraints on the powers of the Prime Minister even go outside of the constitution. Do we really have a vigorous Press? Are there powerful interest groups? In small societies like ours all of these groups depend on patronage from the state. What is said next is also important. “There are things which the Prime Minister knows he cannot get away with, and failure to recognise these limits has often led to disaster” Furthermore in looking at Britain, “…the British public has a high degree of confidence in its capacity to influence policies and does so continuously either by the actions of individuals or more often through organised groups.” Can we say the same? After examining some aspects of the workings of the Westminster model they look at Trinidad and conclude that there “…democracy is still a very tender plant needing a great deal of care and nurture. The public still very largely believe that policy making was a matter for (the Government).” So say we all.

I have pulled out these issues because we have to understand the nature of our society and our political culture. Putting something into a constitution does not necessarily mean it would work. It is the people who would make the constitution work, who would protect what is in the constitution. But we have had thirty years as an independent country and we have arrived at tribal politics as it has never been like before. Do we have provisions in the constitution that will change this or would tribal politics sabotage the workings of the constitution? (To be continued)

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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