6 Aug 2008

A Bajan observes

It is not only I who have observed that Pa-trick is on a demented quest. The Barbados Nation's political correspondent ALBERT BRANDFORD writes:

IT IS BECOMING increasingly clear that Prime Minister Patrick Manning is on a journey to leave a legacy not only on the political landscape of Trinidad and Tobago but across CARICOM.

He is already known for toying with political constructs that seek to isolate sub-regions in CARICOM, such as the Manning Initiative which, to this day, does not have a compelling purpose.

But the biggest of Manning's ideas has come in the form of a working paper - not yet government policy - that strives to improve the governance structure of Trinidad and Tobago, perhaps inspired by the 18-18 tie in the 2001 general election.

The proposed reforms of the constitution, however, do not indicate in any way how they would resolve such an occurrence in the future.

The essence of Manning's proposed reforms is to make the executive president the head of both the government and the state, giving what is now an all-powerful prime minister even greater powers of governance and control.

While upgrading the status of the prime minister, the proposed new draft constitution devastates the contribution of other elected members of the House of Representatives, both in terms of quantity and quality in the cabinet.

In fact, according to Manning: "It is proposed that the cabinet would now AID AND ADVISE [my emphasis] the president on the general direction and control of the government. It would comprise the president, vice-president and up to 25 members, of whom not more than six would be appointed from the House of Representatives and three from the Senate. The rest of the ministers would be appointed from outside of the parliament."

Imagine, a leader of a political party in Trinidad and Tobago uses 40 other party members to assist him in securing victory at the polls, but then agrees sufficiently with proposed reforms to bring them to parliament suggesting that at most - not at least - six ministers could be elected Members of Parliament.

On two scores, Prime Minister Manning's motives would have to be questioned: first, no other elected MP has to be a minister; and secondly, the number of ministers elected is restricted to six.

It takes a very special politician, guided by some higher power, to reduce other elected Members of Parliament - from whom he derived his power - to mere statistical objects.

It must be the case that only elected members of the House of Representatives can cast a secret ballot to determine who becomes the executive president.

Under the current constitution, the non-executive president is chosen by the Electoral College, a unicameral body consisting of all of the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives, convened by the Speaker, as chairman, and who has an original vote.

It is particularly striking that only the president and the vice-president are guaranteed membership of Manning's proposed cabinet which has an upper limit of 25 members.

Since the president and vice-president are to be appointed from the House of Representatives, only four other members from the ruling party can become ministers. That makes the proposals even more ludicrous!

Political folly

At the two extremes, ministers appointed from outside of the parliament may make up - at most - 23 out of the possible 25 members of the cabinet, or - at least - 16 out of the possible 25 members.

These ministers would be all appointed by the president who got his power from the elected members of the House of Representatives!

In its current state, the governing party in Trinidad and Tobago must have at least 21 members in the Lower House who, under the proposed reforms, would be restricted to offering only "aid and advice" to the cabinet on the general direction and control of the government - a restriction that is also imposed on the cabinet.

To me, that is political folly in the extreme.

The only reasonable proposal that prevents the new draft constitution from being seen as the making of an elected dictatorship is one for a term limit for the executive president, a maximum of two terms - ten years at most.

Otherwise, the Manning proposals smack of a leader trying to secure ultimate political power, more in search of creating a one-man show than entrenching a participatory democracy that broadens the base of leadership.

Having proposed to emasculate the elected representatives in the Lower House, Manning also wants to see an enlarged and essentially elected Senate for Trinidad and Tobago.

The following proposed reforms may help to restore a sense of balance with respect to those who voted for having some say in the general direction and control of government.

The Senate would comprise 49 - up from 31 - members of which 28 would be elected, and based on recommendations from the political parties following a general election, 18 would be assigned seats on the basis of proportional representation.

The other three senators would be elected by the Tobago House of Assembly.

More questions than answers

The existing nine Independent senators would be no more; yet, it appears that the broad principle - apart from the President becoming more powerful - is to involve more non-political practitioners in the decision-making process.

This identifies a basic inconsistency in the proposed reforms.

Oddly enough, the Cabinet, which has the responsibility only to "aid and advise" the President on the general direction and control of government, would be the least democratic of the institutions of government.

It is widely believed that people who get involved in elective politics do so out of self-interest, and so, it is going to be more than interesting to witness a national debate in Trinidad and Tobago on a proposed constitution that reduces the effective participation of the majority of elected Members of Parliament in running the affairs of government.

Prime Minister Manning is unorthodox, but his desire to change Trinidad and Tobago's constitution to increase the power of the political leader raises more questions than it provides answers.

It is being argued by some commentators that that increased power would come at the expense of the judiciary and the parliament - a frightening prospect for any country!

But perhaps the most frightening aspect of this proposed mischief would be the decimation of the will of the people in the first-past-the-post system used to elect members to the House of Representatives that would have to give way to the will of a political leader, especially in determining the composition of the Cabinet, a body of ministers who traditionally initiate policy and are collectively responsible for the government of the country.

For the sake of the people of the people of Trinidad and Tobago, may it never happen.

The rest of us in the region, especially here in Barbados, should watch the developments closely, because politicians are . . . well, politicians.