“Eric Williams understood proportional representation (PR) very clearly, and he said to the people in a marathon session in Parliament that proportional representation is a dagger aimed at the heart of the PNM by those who can’t fight the PNM politically. And that is fundamental PNM policy,”
– Rowley, Public Meeting in Barataria (10th March 2014)
Last night the country bore witness to another one of Dr. Keith Rowley’s overwrought shock-and-awe campaigns in which he initiated some woefully irrational and utterly baseless criticisms on the proposed constitutional reforms. It is clear that his attack is based on fear, deceit and a complete lack of understanding of true democracy.
Nothing he uttered was reinforced by a justifiable argument and not an iota of evidence was offered. He is using worn-out PNM scare tactics of panic and intimidation as he seeks to manipulate the nation into holding on to the archaic systems past in which the PNM flourishes.
He is clearly threatened by the foresight, vision and courage of this Government in propelling the country into a brighter future.
The Honourable Prime Minister during her tenure has never descended to such dishonorable depths by using forced anxiety or base tactics to foster support for her policies which have ALWAYS put the nation first. These constitutional reforms stemmed from a solid foundation of numerous public consultations, extensive research and thorough analyses.
Democracy is not a static thing and neither is a constitution. A constitution is a living, breathing instrument that grows and evolves with the people whom it serves, as they also grow and evolve. Our society has developed and matured over the last half a century since we gained Independence, and is more than ready to make informed decisions about their political future. To handcuff them to the old structures that were designed for a different time and era in our politics is to encourage political stagnation constitutional stasis.
The people of Trinidad and Tobago, for the first time, will be given a real opportunity to explore their constitution and express their concerns. These reforms come from the belly of the people NOT from the wild imaginations of politicians nor the self-serving interest of the narrow, validating elite.
These reforms empower the people and has therefore, sent a chill down the political spine of the PNM. It has never been their modus operandi to give power to the people or to engage the population’s intellect but rather to instill terror and propagate the racial divide.
The time has come for the people of Trinidad and Tobago to reject these tired refrains and these timeworn strategies and embrace the dawn of a truly superior and enhanced democracy that ensures that power rests in the hands of the people which is where it truly belongs.
These reforms signify our growing maturity and our understanding that we can change the way things have always been done. The Westminster model has served us well and we are now sufficiently savvy to seek improvements.
Dr Rowley made several observations and gave his own commentary on the 3 proposed reforms namely ‘Fixed Term Limits of the Prime Minister’, the ‘Right of Recall’ and ‘Runoff or Two-Round Voting’.
It must be noted that the PNM has suddenly awakened from its slumber to propose amendments to the constitution of its own. Even while they seek to condemn us for a lack of consultation we ask and when did they consult to arrive at these proposals? Have they abandoned their quest for an executive President? Have they distanced themselves from the Manning constitution that sought to subvert the independence of the judiciary?
The Two Term Limit for a Prime Minister
The days of the maximum leader and autocrat are long gone and elected representatives must enter the arena knowing that they have a finite time to do their job. It cannot be good for democracy or efficiency to engage any person for an indefinite period, being the Prime Minister should not be a job for life. The United States of America which prides itself as the beacon of democracy for the free world has term limits for their President and their citizens do not feel disenfranchised in any way. Why should our citizens feel that their right to choose has been restricted? It is perhaps the converse, their right to choose is enlarged if for example they are happy with the party of their choice but not its leader then they can remain loyal to their party comforted by the fact that they would not have to tolerate a poor leader for more than 2 terms. There are nearly 90 other countries across the globe that currently has limitations on the number of terms that the head of government can lead. In fact, our model based on the US experience, is intended to be one where the President must demit office after two terms with grace and dignity. They hold significant influence and provide invaluable knowledge and expertise as revered statesmen and can serve as a secular consultant.
The Right of Recall
Dr Rowley’s concern is that the threshold to trigger this mechanism is so high so as to render it ineffectual. This criticism is once again founded in a lack of understanding of democratic process. Persons who face the electorate to become MP’s are there to serve the people. It should not be easy to undo the fully democratic process which positioned these individuals. There must be adequate safeguards and checks and balances to prevent disingenuous calls for removal. Our proposal for petitioning a recall is only possible by way of an agreeing 10% of the electoral total of constituents and then the majority of 2/3 voting. This therefore creates a barrier against abuse of the ability to enforce a recall.
The model suggested in these reforms is used in Canada and several states in the USA. This mechanism demands accountability from MP’s and for the first time introduces a sanction if they fail their constituents. The threshold set prevents mischief makers from causing unease or instability. Once again Dr Rowley creates absurd arguments founded purely on sensationalism and melodrama. There is no shallow gimmick involved here. What is happening is that the People’s Partnership Government is changing the political culture by which MPs service their constituencies by imposing on them the requirement of a mid-term review and an assessment of their service.
From now on, when persons offer themselves as candidates for the House of representatives, they must know that this is a 24/7 job that requires their constant attention because their voters will now have the power to remove them ahead of any general election.
This will deepen our democracy by increasing by more than “one jot” the citizen participation in our democracy.
These proposals are not platitudes and they are solutions to the problems that constituents have had with many MPs over the fifty-two years of our history of independence.
This is a moment in history to fix this by tilting the balance in favor of the voter. The electorate are not afraid of voicing their dissatisfaction so why should they fear a reform measure which places in the palm of their hand, or more precisely at the tip of their right index finger, the power to remove from office an unsatisfactory representative.
Dr Rowley not only does he fail to understand the principle of this reform but his accusations are mathematically erroneous. Why would any right thinking democratically minded individual want to be governed by any party that failed to secure 50% of the votes cast? Surely the best interests of the country will be served by a Government that has the majority support of the citizens. Imagine a situation where there are 5 separate political parties in a general election with the ‘winning party’ securing only 23% of all the votes cast, should they be entitled to govern a country where 77% of the people voted against them? Dr. Rowley insists that this measure severely restrict the individual’s right to vote for the party and candidate of his or her choice and that citizens would in effect be forced to vote for candidates of one of the two major political parties or stay out of the election process.
The truth of the matter is that the citizens’ individual right of choice to vote for a party or candidate of their choice is not restricted in any form or fashion and will remain unfettered. In fact, we sought to broaden this critical choice by permitting the voter a second opportunity to vote in an instance where the electorate is unable to decide on a majority winner. Such voters would have their opportunity to vote expanded, and not restricted, as they will have the chance to vote for a second time and may wish to change their minds or keep their original choice.
In the case where any party did not make it to the runoff election fifteen days later, those electors will have the opportunity to vote for a second choice candidate so that there is absolutely no restriction on the right to vote. Is Dr. Rowley suggesting that our citizens must be chained to one party and one vote? Are the citizens not allowed to have varying levels of support for multiple candidates regardless of party affiliation? Does he think that it is undemocratic to give people a chance to say, ‘well my preferred candidate was unsuccessful, but I do like Candidate A or Candidate B?’ Under this current plurality system, third and fourth parties are stifled and subverted. Indeed Mr. Rowley is the latest flag bearer for the PNM’s policy that it will ‘win alone and lose alone’.
How could that be a true representation of the will of the people or of democracy? Dr Rowley fantasizes about a less sophisticated Trinidad and Tobago, a country that sees the PNM first and everything else a distant second. That time has long passed and the coalition government of the People’s Partnership is testimony to the new paradigm. The voter’s democratic right to choose a party or a candidate is not removed or limited in any way, in fact it positively allows a voter to choose a government it wants rather than be saddled with a minority winner. It is insulting to suggest that people should just take what they get when they are being given a second bite at the cherry to be able to vote again. Furthermore, the possibility of runoff elections will only arise depending upon the will of the electorate.
The suggestion that a run-off election will impair the peaceful transfer of power from government to government ignores the reality that the incumbent Prime Minister always remains in office unless another Prime Minister is appointed. This is already provided for in the Constitution and the right of the President to appoint a new PM in the event there is a clear majority that cannot be altered by the results of pending run offs remain. This much is already clear and we will be happy to clarify it even further. Every government remains in office regardless of the outcome until the President informs the Prime Minister that the President is going reappoint that Prime Minister or to appoint someone else as Prime Minister under section 77(2)(a) of the Constitution which is not being amended here.
In 2001, the country waited from December 10th until December 24th for the President to appoint a Prime Minister. In 2000, the country waited from December 11th until December 20th for the President to appoint a Prime Minister. Waiting for fifteen days to appoint a Government is not a problem bearing in mind that we have already had a minority Prime Minister who’s Government could not properly convene Parliament after the December 2001 general election and the country waited for ten months before another general election was held. The fact is that fifteen days is not an attempt by any Government to hold on to power, but rather to facilitate the run-off election. Dr. Rowley’s point is completely unfounded if we consider the Prime Minister’s intention to have fixed dates for elections instead of using it as a political weapon to much like his predecessor.
This system is successfully used in France, Costa Rica, Portugal and some states in the USA. It does not erode democracy or create instability, it encourages clinical thought and discourages tribalism. It expands the plains of democracy in Trinidad and Tobago to prevent a minority government holding the reins of power when the majority of the people did not vote for them.
In essence, Dr. Rowley has effectively concluded that enhancing the CHOICES of the electorate is a THREAT TO DEMOCRACY.
Today, I challenge Dr. Rowley tonight to ask the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago 3 simple questions:
1. “If your preferred candidate is unsuccessful at the polls, would you appreciate the chance to have a second vote?”
2. “If you are given a second choice in a Runoff Election, would you consider this an invasion on your democratic right?
3. Would you feel as if you are being forced in some way to make a choice?
Clearly this issue of Runoff Elections has caused so much terror in the Rowley camp, that they have consciously misrepresented and sabotaged these reforms.
I would like to inform the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago and especially the members of the intelligentsia and academia that Dr. Rowley is against all forms of electoral reform INCLUDING Proportional Representation which they should have been considered as part of constitutional reform. In fact in running for the post of political leader of the PNM he scathingly criticized his opponent for their position on proportional representation (PR) which was diametrically opposed to fundamental People’s National Movement (PNM) policy. He publicly stated, and I quote: “You going to agree to execute yourself as long as there is consultation on it? Which turkey votes for himself to be eaten at Thanksgiving?”
To the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago, this proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Dr. Rowley and the current PNM leadership has always possessed and will continue to be forever in pursuit of a single-minded resolve focused on political survival, power and influence regardless of the cost to the citizenry.
Dated: Saturday 9th August, 2014.
MINISTRY OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL
REPUBLIC OF TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO