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Our constitution and the role of the Opposition

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The final act in the three-year life of the Parliament-appointed Constitutional review Commission (CRC) is expected to be carried out this Friday when the CRC hands over its supplementary Report to House Speaker, Hendrick Alexander. This Report is, as its name suggests, intended to supplement and buttress the Final Report of the Commission, presented to Parliament last year.{{more}}

Its contents have been informed and advanced by feedback from the general public, important interaction with Parliament and by further reflections by the Commissioners themselves.

Following the formal handing over, the next step in the process is expected to be a full-scale debate by Parliament on the issue. This would pave the way for the climax of the reform process – the following of a national Referendum when citizens would have the opportunity to say “Yes” or “No” as they see fit. At the outset of the exercise there was general expectation that the Referendum would come sometime in 2007. In fact Prime Minister Gonsalves himself alluded to that date. Whether that deadline is still on the cards is left to be seen.

For me, there are no few persons in the CRC and without, myself excluded, who are still not happy with the level of public discussion and debate on such a fundamental issue. We spend far more time on trivial political and personal issues. That includes the Parliamentarians themselves, the very people who started the ball rolling by the establishment of the CRC. Very rarely, not even in passing, do we hear reference by the MPs to the Constitutional reform process and few have made any public pronouncements on the matter.

In my opinion therefore, we cannot just jump the gun and move from Parliamentary debate to Referendum. It is of paramount importance that we use all means at the nation’s disposal to whip up enthusiasm for public input into the discussion. Changing or amending a Constitution is a very serious chapter in a nation’s history requiring deep thought, interaction and exchange of views at all levels before we give a thumbs up or down. It must not be allowed to degenerate into an emotional or political partisan affair. There must be no NDP or ULP in our “Choices for Change” (to borrow the title of a CRC booklet), no Gonsalves or Eustace, no partisan colouration, whether green, red or yellow. The national interests and the future of our nation must be our yardstick for approval. Parliament would do well to consider commissioning some sort of mechanism to spearhead further national consultation, maybe a slimmed-down CRC, leading up to the Referendum to try and maintain a non-partisan course.

One issue tackled by the CRC in its deliberations and recommendations is that which most of our people believe is fundamental to democracy – that of an Opposition, especially in Parliament. This is particularly so for Vincentians given our experience of a one-party Parliament in the 1989-94 period. For most of us, the role of the Opposition revolves around the infamous saying “To expose, oppose and depose”. We take these very seriously. Our politicians are conditioned by them, to the extent that they even forget a function of even greater importance that is the responsibility of the Opposition “to propose”.

The CRC in trying to deal with this matter and to fulfill one of its critical objectives, that of minimizing if not eliminating political tribalism from the body politic, has proposed changing the term “Opposition” in Parliament and playing down the appearance of hostile contenders for power, by suggesting the use of the term “Majority and Minority”. Some have scoffed at the idea not even considering that these represent parts of a whole as opposed to forces opposed to each other. If Parliamentarians are allowed to express their own views on matters before the House, and not being bound solely by partisan considerations, or to take the views of those they claim to represent, then Parliamentary democracy and decision-making would be all the more enriched.

This burden on the Opposition to “expose, oppose and depose” often lands many a well-meaning Party and MP into Opposition for opposition sake. I detect some of it in our own scenario, at the expense of being able to provide clear alternatives, of fulfilling the function of “to propose”. It leads persons who themselves are not inherently backward or reactionary into falling in the trap of pandering to backwardness, or criticizing from right-wing and reactionary view points under the guise of populism. It is exaggerated by the tendency of the Prime Minister to bait his opponents so that blinded by anti-Ralphism, they often end up not seeing the trees because of the woods, and throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Sometimes, many times in fact, the last sitting of the House being an example, the Opposition seems to lose its script and its way. Thus on the crucial issue of the Public Debt, a major issue for us all, we get due warnings on its size and affordability but little in the way HOW TO HANDLE IT. Similarly, on the Produce Bill, an issue which deserves more public comment and concern, it allowed itself to be maneuvered into a narrow, free enterprise, free trade line rather than maintain a principled line and thus be able to expose what it considers to be the fundamental flaws of the Government.

This is what happens when we get into Opposition for opposition sake. The NDP needs to do deep reflection, to halt the slide to the right and into the arms of reaction, to play its role in keeping the ship of state on a firm and principled course including support for progressive policies, exposure of administrative and political blunders, and ensuring that whoever is at the helm, our country maintains a path of progressive development. Cheap politricks and populism do not serve the interests of the nation, of ULP, NDP, Eustace or Gonsalves. We all lose as a result.

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