Posted on

Reflections on the Constitution (Part 5)

Share

On the cover of the final report of the OAS/UNDP Conference on Constitutional Reform in the Caribbean that was held in Barbados in 2002 there is a quotation from Dr. Ralph Gonsalves that reads as follows: “Constitutional reform is not a political abstraction. It is a major, political exercise in governance involving real flesh – and blood people awash with their peculiarities and contradictions, conditioned by their socio-political history and contemporary reality.”{{more}} Beautifully said! This is really what I look for every time I have a chance to read the constitution. I want to see instruments that would improve governance and I look for provisions in the constitution that are informed by the fact that we are dealing with ‘real flesh-and -blood people awash with their peculiarities and contradictions, conditioned by their socio-political history and contemporary reality.’ This is really one of the problems I have with the constitution. It is a political abstraction. It fails to take into account that we are dealing with real people and it fails to be governed by the realities of politics in St.Vincent and the Grenadines since we took control of our affairs in 1979. It expects our politicians and the other major players in governance to act like people who are pure and who are above the pettiness we find in our politics and who act in the interest of the country and are not governed by the dictates of party politics and sheer acquisition of power. When we see what transpires in the House and the clear battle lines that are drawn and when we see what passes for good governance, we should have tried to restore some semblance of order and redefine what good governance is.

In Chapter 6 on “Composition of Parliament” I am absolutely astounded by 68 (d). One of the qualifications to be a Senator or Representative, is that the person “is able to speak and unless incapacitated by blindness or other physical cause, to read the English language with a degree of proficiency sufficient to enable him to take an active part in the proceedings of the National Assembly.” This was lifted lock, stock and barrel from our present constitution. But even more it goes back to 1951 when faced with the advent of Adult Suffrage, this provision was introduced to stifle the aspirations of the masses. In fact this provision was later used by the Labour Government against Mrs. Joshua. It appears to me a sad reflection on the state of our country that today, October 2009, we see the need to reintroduce such a clause. I cannot remember precisely what happened in the case of Mrs. Joshua, but what we need first to ask is how do you determine degree of proficiency to read the English language to enable persons to actively participate in the proceedings in parliament?

I am not suggesting that we put in parliament people who are illiterate and unable to play a meaningful role in the debates in parliament. What I am suggesting is that hopefully we have a voting population that understands this, that understands the requirements for participating effectively in the National Assembly and would act accordingly. I am embarrassed that we find the need to reintroduce such a clause. In any event what is a democracy all about? Anyone should be able to harbour thoughts of representing people in parliament, but on the other hand we should have an enlightened population that is able to assess who is best able to carry out the tasks required of a parliamentarian. If I were from Mars and saw that provision I would begin to harbour funny thoughts about the state of our country. That clause is archaic and better reflects the state of our society in 1951. It was not long ago that a gentleman from Bequia, a McIntosh I believe, argued through letters to the newspapers that people like him should have more votes than the poor illiterates whom he despised for the fact that they were able to exercise the same vote and right to vote as he was able to.

There are some provisions in the Constitution that have me somewhat confused. One example of this is in the Chapter on Electoral and Boundaries Commission, section 94 (9) that reads, “Where there is a quorum, the Commission shall not be disabled from transacting any business by reason of any vacancy among its members, and any proceeding of the Commission shall be valid even though some person took part therein when he was not entitled to do so.” What does this all mean? Why should anyone be allowed to participate if he was not entitled to do so? What would be the nature of his participation and why should the proceedings be valid? There must be some reason for putting this in. I have tried to figure out what it is really meant to do and what is behind it. Unfortunately, this one has me.

Another section had me searching frantically to fully comprehend it. I am sure I must have missed something. Section 104 (3) identifies areas where the President shall act in his own deliberate judgment in accordance with the following provisions of this constitution. 104 (3 a) lists among them 115 (1): What does it say? Where the Prime Minister is absent from the country or is ill or as the result of passage of a vote of no confidence, “the President may authorise some other member of the Cabinet to perform those functions…” One understands that if the Prime Minister is ill he might not be in a position to advise the President on his replacement in an Acting capacity. But then 113 (1) refers to Cabinet advising the President but states that the provisions in that clause shall not apply where the Constitution requires the President to act in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister, as in relation to- a)”… the authorising of a Minister other than the Prime Minister to perform the functions of the Prime Minister during the Prime Minister’s absence or illness or other unavailability”. What I cannot find is any area of the Constitution that requires the President to act in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister as it relates to “the authorising of a Minister other than the Prime Minister to perform the functions of the Prime Minister during the Prime Minister’s absence or illness or other unavailability”. I am sure there has to be such a provision but all I could find is 115 (1) that according to 104 and 104 3(a) allows the President to act in his own deliberate judgment in selecting someone to replace the Prime Minister during his absence or illness.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

LAST NEWS