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Reflections on the Proposed Constitution (part 6)

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One of the provisions that people of this country have long called for is Integrity legislation. This is not something that was pulled out of thin air but arose out of concerns about the behaviour of our politicians, about their ethical ‘misconduct’, dishonest practices and the belief that corruption is rife in this land of ours. Any new constitution thus had to make provision for Integrity legislation. Chapter 10, clauses 139 and 140, refers to “The Integrity Commission”.{{more}} This is extremely disappointing and falls short of what is needed. While it lists the functions of the ‘Commission’, matters related to its composition, the tenure of members and the procedures are left up to Parliament. Clause 139 describes the functions of the Commission and subsection c) of that same clause states, “the supervision and monitoring of standards of ethical conduct prescribed by Parliament to be observed by the holders of offices referred to in paragraph (a) of this section. The section a) referred to identifies members of the National Assembly and the holders of such offices as may be prescribed. So the people whose behaviour and misconduct propelled such a Commission are asked to provide the framework and details for the operation of the Commission. It is like putting a mouse to watch cheese. Indeed section 139 (1) reads as follows: “There shall be an Integrity Commission…for St.Vincent and the Grenadines consisting of such number of members, qualified and appointed in such manner and holding office upon such tenure as may be prescribed by Parliament.”

The position taken by Oscar Allen in his article entitled “Parliament, whose power house?” that appeared in the Searchlight of October 23 is quite relevant here. Oscar writes, “As we examine ‘Parliament’ we are bound to ask the Constitution this question, how far does Parliament take away power from the people and how far does Parliament empower the People? Whose power rules the house of parliament?” He makes reference to the manner in which the President is to be elected and the division into political party compartments. He sees political parties kidnapping people and ‘enslaving them politically.’ Moreover, he says, “The party dominated Parliament and Executive become an effective institution for mental enslavement and disempowerment” There are other references Oscar could have made to strengthen the point he was making but the most glaring is the one where Parliament will decide how those who are to monitor and investigate their conduct, will operate. Who will chair such a Committee? How will he/she be selected/elected? How will the members be selected? Only Parliament will decide? It is outside the hands of the people. We are told that power belongs to the people but their sovereignty is exercised through the Representatives and Senators in the National Assembly. Even the right to decide how we will monitor their behaviour will be outside of the people’s control. If the proposed Constitution is approved when will the Integrity Commission be established? Section 148 which pertains to Local Government states “Not later than three years after the coming into force of this Constitution, Parliament shall establish a system of Local Government for St.Vincent and the Grenadines…” There is no such thing for the Integrity Commission. The provision for the Integrity Commission as spelt out in section 139 is toothless. Do we think Parliament will give it teeth?

A similar thing happens with the Human Rights Commission as seen in chapter 4 sections 44 to 48. Section 48 (1) reads “Parliament may make laws prescribing the method of appointment and removal of Commissioners, their tenure, remuneration, other terms and conditions; and other matters incidental to the functioning of the Commission; in terms and with guarantees ensuring the independence and effectiveness of the Commission.” The Human Rights and Integrity Commission are important Commissions whose composition, structure and method of operation should have been debated by the public rather than left in the hands of the politicians. The power of the people equals five minutes or less in a polling booth every five years. Nothing has changed here.

The constitutional document approved and passed by parliament has a number of typographical errors but there are also other kinds of errors. In Chapter 9 on “The Parliamentary Commission”, section 131 (3) states, “The Secretariat of the National Assembly referred to in section 89 of this Constitution shall provide administrative and clerical services for the Commission,” but section 89 has nothing to do with this. The reference should really be to section 90 (1). By the way this is the document approved by Parliament and on which we have to vote. If it passes then will we have to resort to the provisions in the Constitution for amending the Constitution?

Section 93 (1) states, “ Subject to the provisions of subsection (3) of this section, a general election shall be held at such time as the President may appoint, within ninety days after any dissolution of Parliament; or if Parliament has been dissolved by reason of a vote of no confidence in the Government, within sixty days after the dissolution.” In the case of a by-election as spelled out in 93 the President has up to 90 days within which to have an election. But 93 (8) reads, “In appointing the time for the holding of a general election under subsection (1) of this section, the President shall act in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister.” It is true that to appoint is to assign officially, but the President has to act on the advice of the Prime Minister. Formally the President appoints the time but it is the Prime Minister who instructs him, an advice on which he has to act.

The present constitution does not provide for a Deputy Prime Minister. The proposed Constitution appears to leave the selection of a Deputy Prime Minister entirely up to the Prime Minister for it says that one of the Ministers ‘may be’ designated Deputy Prime Minister and appointed by the President in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister. The Constitution makes no provision for a Deputy Prime Minister acting in the absence of the Prime Minister. Sections 113 (2) and 115 (1) which appear to contradict each other and 115 (3) spell out the process for selecting someone to deputise for the Prime Minister during his absence.

It is not clear to me what has happened with the Local Government Committee that was established shortly after the Constitutional Reform process began but the proposed constitution makes provision for the establishment of a system of Local Government. Again, it is Parliament that will determine the composition, powers, functions and duties. Quite a lot is left hanging including the issue of the financing of local government which is an extremely important imatter. The framers of the Constitution were only prepared to go as far as to say that “It will be appropriate for more autonomy to be afforded local government bodies in the Grenadines than those on the mainland.” Left to Parliament they will simply make local government a carbon copy of Central Government and totally dependent on it. I wonder what that Local Government Committee had to say about this. But Parliament will prescribe. Democracy in Action! Amen.

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