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Reflections on the Constitution (Part 4)

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The proposed constitution appears to me to be an excellent document for discussion in a classroom, about political culture and the politics of our country. It has a fairy tale like flavour as if we are really speaking and addressing issues outside of our country. A constitution is not something to be examined in a vacuum. It is something that has to take into account the realities of the politics of our country.{{more}} We are not going to change the political actors by simply putting something in a constitution because in the final analysis it is those actors who have to deal with it. And they know quite well that they are dealing with a population that is so dependent on them that what they do matters little. In an effort to appear to be reducing the powers of the Prime Minister the framers of the constitution have set a high store on the matter of Consultation. When it is stated that the Prime Minister has to consult with the Minority Leader, what does this really mean? What if they cannot agree? Whose views prevail? We have had examples since Independence of Prime Ministers simply phoning the Leader of the Opposition to inform him of a decision he has already made and to remind him that they have consulted. I have quoted in previous articles from the 1974 Report of the Constitution Commission in Trinidad and Tobago. The authors of that report in speaking about their country suggested that based on the experience of the past six years they had concluded that consultation does not really work and that moreover it is impossible to define. On page 34 of that document, the following is stated, “Genuine consultation requires an attitude of mind which political opponents may find difficult to cultivate in the absence of a long tradition.”

Of course, the same thing applies to SVG, even more so. When a President for example in appointing the Chairman of the Public Service Commission has to do so in consultation with the Prime Minister and the Minority Leader, what happens if there is disagreement? Clearly, if there is a strong President, then his will could prevail, but then… On the issue of the Public Service Commission I am intrigued by clauses 160 (b) (c). B) caters for the provision of one member appointed by the President acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister. This is fine. No problem with this. But then clause (c) states “One member appointed by the President, acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister, provided that before tendering such advice the Prime Minister shall consult with the Minority Leader;” That meaningless consultation thing again. The Prime Minister then has two picks.

The Powers of Parliament

On the matter of altering any of the provisions of the Constitution or of the Supreme Court Order, the current constitution calls for passage in Parliament by 2/3 of all the Representatives and 2/3 of all the votes validly cast on (that) referendum. The proposed constitution has reduced this to 60 percent at the referendum. Why was this done? Obviously to make it easier to alter the constitution! If there is need for change to the constitution that can be considered meaningful, why don’t we try to influence the populace rather than short change the process by making it easier for those in authority to do so?

The President

Provision is made for the Prime Minister and Minority Leader to consult jointly or separately with the Chairman of the Parliamentary Commission and to submit to the Speaker in writing a joint nomination if they could so agree. Of course the Speaker is the Chairman of the Parliamentary Commission. No big thing, just making a point about this. If they cannot agree on a joint nominee, the Prime Minister, Minority Leader or any other five members of the Assembly ‘may submit by writing under their hands to the Speaker their respective nominations of candidates for election as President.’ Back to the fairy tale! Those ‘any other five members of the Assembly’ would have owed their places to either the Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition and are unlikely to submit candidates in direct opposition to that submitted by their respective leaders. Are we still dreaming that we can pull out backbenchers from nowhere? This leads us to another issue. The Constitution limits the number of offices of Minister of Government other than the office of Prime Minister to 12, which is probably what we have at this moment. And then there can be no more than five Parliamentary Secretaries! So, conceivably, most on the government side can be well looked after. I disagree with the extension of the National Assembly. Why should a country with a population of less than 110,000 people need seventeen constituency representatives, and that is taking into account issues relating to geography? We really cannot afford that. It is a drain on the National purse.

To get back to the President! I do not subscribe to having the President elected nationally. It will lead to the same kind of divisiveness that we are suffering from, even though the President will be a nominal figure like the Governor General. Having said that, however, I disagree with the provisions made for the election of a President in the National Assembly- “The candidate who at that election receives the votes of not less than a majority of all the members of the Assembly (“the requisite majority”) shall be declared by the Speaker to have been duly elected:” You might under these circumstances well have him elected nationally. What I would prefer to see is a President elected at least by 2/3 of the National Assembly. This depending on the Composition of the Assembly will signal a wider acceptance. The problem I have with this is that depending on the composition of the Assembly you could have the vote ending in a deadlock with members voting along party lines. Of course, what do you expect if you have two candidates, one proposed by the Prime Minister and one by the Minority Leader? On the other hand the removal of the President requires a 2/3 majority after the report of a tribunal is presented to the National Assembly and voted on. Why not 2/3 then for his/her election?

On the issue of qualifications to be President, I looked to see if there was anything to prevent someone who had recently been rejected as a representative at the polls being nominated for and ultimately being elected President. I have seen no such provision. Are we expecting too much from those we elected to Parliament? Remember that ethics and Integrity are bad words in our national politics. I note, too, that the President “shall be the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.” What armed forces are we speaking about? Would this include the ‘Black Squad’, for instance? What are the duties of a Commander-in-Chief, in any event? I know what a Commander in Chief does in the case of the United States of America. About SVG, I am not sure. Could there be a potential conflict with the Minister of National Security? Is it that we want to give the President something to do? Perhaps not, for remember that “The Prime Minister shall keep the President fully informed concerning the general conduct of the Government and shall furnish the President with such information as the President may request with respect to any particular matter relating to the government” After this, what time will he find to be Commander in Chief of our Armed Forces?

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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