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posted 25 Aug 2014, 04:12 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 25 Aug 2014, 04:13 ]


By Ken Howell

The Constitution Amendment Bill has provoked quite a lot of heated debate in the country for and against. Most of the contributions to the debate coming from callers to the Radio Stations complained about perceived threats to democracy; others complained that the consultation process was not widespread enough.


They argue that the government does not have the agreement of the people to proceed to amend the constitution to provide for term limits for the office of Prime Minister; to provide for the recall of a member of Parliament or to amend the Elections and Boundaries Commission Act, to cater for a run-off in a constituency, where a candidate in an election, gets less than 50% of the votes. The Opposition and parties on the fringe of electoral politics argue along similar lines with the addition of more details.


One of the interesting things coming out of the alarm created by these bills is that the ordinary people are prepared to talk about democracy. But through no fault of theirs, they are engaging in a debate about amending the Constitution of a democracy which was imposed on us, and not one of the type of democracy that they would like to have. 


What is coming across in the conversation is a sense that the political ground is shifting gradually towards a desire on the part of the people, not only to talk about participatory politics but also to actively engage in that type of politics. Unfortunately, the direction in which the debate was channelled and the atmosphere it created in the country was not conducive for the imparting of education on the nature of the constitution we have and that when it was enacted the interests of the ordinary people was not in the forefront of the minds of the framers.


There is hardly much difference between the 1962 Independence Constitution and the Republican Constitution. Where the difference exists is that more power was given to the office of the Prime Minister. But the rights and freedoms contained therein have not been amended or repealed.


The limited rights workers enjoy are those they fought for and even where the Industrial Relations Act, a piece of legislation, which required a 2/3 majority in order to infringe on the rights of workers for it to be passed in both houses of Parliament, recognized the right to strike; restrictions are placed on the manner in which it is exercised by the workers and their Unions.


So the debate about democracy in the context of people’s participation is not provided for under the current constitutional arrangements. There is nothing written in the pages of the Constitution to compel a government to consult with the people. If and when consultation occurs, it is merely for the purpose of taking the temperature of the people with regard to a particular subject matter. The consultative process must not be confused with negotiations, whereby proposals are submitted by the parties seeking agreement through which a particular problem can be resolved.


Consultation is not expected to produce any agreement, because parties are not required to sign any document. It could be the question of legislation for the purpose of dealing with what the lawyers sometimes describe as a particular mischief, or to see how the population reacts to a decision to construct a highway, as in the case of the highway from San Fernando to Point Fortin. Such consultations are not required to get the agreement of the people who participated in the exercise.

The PNM which now occupies the Opposition benches managed the affairs of this country for many years and know this to be a fact. But their objective is to get as much as they can out of the ignorance of the people on this question because to educate the people on such matters would impact negatively on the effectiveness of their propaganda campaign.


The main features of the Constitution prescribe for the separation of powers i.e., lines of demarcation, have been placed between the Executive, which is the government and the Judiciary which comprise the Courts, headed by the Chief Justice. That is to ensure that there is no interference in each other’s affairs. This does not mean that there would not be an exchange of views or consultation from time to time.


Our Constitution is really designed to ensure that the economic and political system entrusted to us at Independence is managed in a manner, which does not deviate too far from the capitalist model, and the democracy we have is reflecting just that. In the day to day management of the affairs of the country, the government, who is charged with that responsibility, is headed by the Prime Minister, who  is assisted by Ministers to whom she has charged with the responsibility to have over-sight of their respective Ministries and provide reports to the Cabinet.


Such Ministers can be selected from among elected members of Parliament or from among government appointed Senators. The Prime Minister can be compared with a Chief Executive Officer of a large corporation and the citizens are the share holders who are invited every five years to a general meeting, which is the national elections. The difference however, is that where in a Corporation's AGM, one share holder's vote can decide who is appointed to the Board of Directors, parties contesting the elections have to convince the electorate that one of them is more qualified than the others to manage the affairs of the country.


But after the electorate give them their stamp of approval by voting them into office, in our democracy, the electorate is not expected to involve themselves in any post election politics. Why? Because the party which won the elections was given a mandate to manage the affairs of the country without any interference from the population! That is why the protective arms of the state, are given co-ercive powers.

The truth is that the population is not expected to interfere in the management of the affairs of the country. That is why, although citizens can go and listen to the debate in the Parliament the law still regards such persons as strangers who can be escorted out of the parliament chamber if such persons are over heard making comments adverse or otherwise.


The way the Constitution treats with the economy is by vaguely speaking about the right to the enjoyment of property without seeking to correct a historical wrong committed against the first peoples of this country and ignoring another historical wrong where lands were given to Catholic slaveholders free of charge which allowed them to make millions through the exploitation of African slaves and East Indian indentured immigrants whose descendants should be entitled to be paid some kind compensation.


In addition to the foregoing, there is the question of the laws concerning squatting, which are connected to this question of the right to the enjoyment of property. When one considers that the foundation of the economy and economic activity is constructed on the basis of the ownership of land, the majority of our citizens are at a disadvantage and the descendants of those who came here and got lands free are the ones benefiting from our democracy.


Another example, is the fact that there is a vast number of citizens who are in need of a home but because their income does not qualify them to get a loan with which to purchase a home, they remain at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords. But that is the democracy we have!


The democracy we want to have is one which is founded on principles which actively recognise that this phrase, “democracy of the people by the people” must be rooted in the day to day participation of the people in the affairs of the country, at the economic and political levels. It must be a democracy in which the search for solutions for all matters affecting the lives of citizens, from the level of the streets, in the villages. towns, cities, rural communities; as farmers, fisher folks, small business, artists and craftsmen, are included and their input a highly regarded, and treated with the respect that is usually reserved for high priced consultants.


Such discussions with these stake holders must not be treated as just consultations because the people must be satisfied that they are not just invited to hear what the presenters have to say. They must leave convinced that the solutions they proposed were not just noted, but would form part of any final report on matters which will have an impact on their future.  When that kind of participation takes root, not only in the consciousness of the people what will begin to happen is that a blueprint for the framework of a Constitution which will provide for the reshaping and re-engineering of the political and economic structures of the country will  emerge.


It goes without saying, therefore, that the democracy we want is not the one which the PP and PNM want to keep. If we have to fight and when we have to fight, we must do so to clear more democratic space for the poor and oppressed in this jungle known as capitalism. Fighting against the current amendments proposed by the government is not a fight for democracy. If one is to analyse the arguments of the political parties against the amendments, objectively, you will realize, they are proceeding from a position of their respective political interests.


We want a democracy in which the interest of the people is not dependent upon their ethnicity; is not dependent on who is sharing the cake. We want a democracy in which, when we talk out against corruption, we are not talking with forked tongues which, when translated, means that we are against corruption based on which ethnic group is in charge of the treasury and is engaged in sharing the cake.

We want a democracy in which the confidence of the people is rooted in the fact that there is equity in the delivery of services, and in the efficiency with which such services are provided. That is the kind of democracy we must invite the people to begin to talk about in all of the organisations representative of their respective interests. Spread the word: increase the call for participatory democracy.