21 Jul 2008

Emasculation of Parliament

PM Manning presented some far-reaching constitutional changes without claiming ownership of them - they are "supposedly" the work of a roundtable of academics and politicians. Some of the recommendations are startling - for example, the constraining of the judiciary and the DPP by the Executive.

Maybe the announcement of these proposed changes at the PNM convention was designed to shock the non-party faithful and, as already suggested, cause this population to engage in righteous but eventually pointless indignation, forgetting, if for a moment, the UDeCOTT enquiry, the Tobago hospital fiasco, the Tarouba stadium, the mess at the Ministry of Education Tower, our double digit inflation, our degenerating economy, our depleting reserves, our poor health service and our crime situation. The constitutional changes revealed by the PM, lustily cheered at the PNM convention, despite Dr Rowley's warning about cheering something not yet understood, need no further comment at this time.

Reform of the Constitution has been on the table for some time and we have to identify its shortcomings (we have had the same type of Constitution for nearly half a century) before attempting to fix it. Our governance system is based on the UK's, and via the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association we communicate with each other, if only to improve this commonly tested system.

One problem we have with our parliamentary system as, say, opposed to those the British have with theirs, lies in the difference in our culture and traditions. For example, if a UK minister messes up he resigns. In T&T that is just par for the job. Faceless ministers accuse a colleague of misbehaviour with dire consequences, for the accused.

Again, ministers figure that they are there to keep the business of government secret, so they do not answer questions in Parliament-they refuse to tell us what we have invested in, and the price of natural gas to Alutrint, what is the fuel subsidy to Caribbean Airlines. They sign agreements like the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and then refuse to abide by them. Parliament played no part in the EPA or CCJ discussions.

Laws are passed and for years they are not promulgated if the government has second thoughts or ulterior motives.

Our system works well in other jurisdictions but because of our political culture we abuse loopholes. Imagine the Speaker of the House telling the public that he cannot demand that a minister answer a question, while in New Zealand such questions must be answered the same day!

Recently we saw ministers hiding behind the shroud of an individual's privacy to avoid telling the Parliament the details of how they spent our money on scholarships and on legal fees. Seven months into this session and we have not established our Joint Select Committees-the Executive does not want them.

The basics of our Constitution are not at fault. What is, is that it does not include measures to ensure that the players abide by the conventions and the rules. Our governance is not the gentleman's game as was cricket of yesteryear. It is about naked power, particularly that wielded by the PM, and its use to protect and sustain the governing elite. Our politics of race ensures that a political party is not normally punished at the polls for its misbehaviour in office.

What stands out in my memory (as a former senator) is the helplessness of Parliament with respect to oversight of the Executive. It might once have been acceptable for a political party to canvass at election time, win the election and then go away with the impression that this win signals that they can do what they like until the next election.

Today, civil society wishes to have a say during the tenure of any government on the formulation of policy and implementation of strategies to effect objectives. To do this the population requires information and a platform to air views. This is why we have the Freedom of Information Act, Joint Select Committees, why some of us are calling for changes in the law that will prevent the Executive from signing international agreements without Parliament's involvement, for a Parliamentary Select Committee's input into the budgeting process beyond the charade of the Budget debate. But this government in particular has been rolling back the laws that guarantee freedom of information to the public; it is reducing its accountability to the public.

Hence, in reforming the Constitution we must increase the control and oversight of Parliament over the governing process, reduce the power of the PM and provide a platform for the general public to acquire information and influence the activities of the Executive between elections. Many of the Manning "reforms" will institutionalise and increase the power of the PM as President.