Saturday, November 30, 2002

Lloyd Best, writing in today's Express, puts the independent senators' effort at initiating constitution reform in its historical context, & summarises the practical impediments to the process:

"The current initiative of reform ... seeks more than ever before to highlight the conflict between popular participation and central power. This is a very real advance on what we have had in the past. The great danger, however, is that the ways and means being employed might again obscure the strategic requirement to settle certain basic issues, (e.g. effective representation in parliament) in a way that would trigger the rest of the reform as a matter of course.

"As it stands, what is certain is that each citizen or each group of citizens will concentrate on some particular set of favoured demands. This is equally true of the senators who’ve been leading the discussion and even of parliamentarians permitted to vote according to their conscience.

"The missing ingredient is politics of the kind that Williams and the PNM possessed in the 1950s but which was conspicuously absent in 1971 given the fragmentation of those days.... The effect of such politics is to bring together the great number of contending interests so that they can be sifted and sorted and ranked according to priority. To generate such politics is clearly one of the benefits of a Constituent Assembly likely to help participants find parties to which they can belong."

He points out that, without the support of one of the two major political parties, the reform process will come to nothing; since "nobody can reasonably expect any proposals seriously to limit executive domination to originate with the PNM at this stage", it will be for the UNC to take the bold necessary steps. But, embroiled in a leadership crisis which is fundamentally an identity crisis, does the UNC even realise that its way forward as a political entity is to embrace constitution reform wholeheartedly, with all the internal party restructuring this will require?

Meanwhile, the Constitution Reform Forum is meeting in St. Augustine today to discuss the PNM's proposal to get rid of the Police Service Commission. Discussion is how the whole reform process must start, obviously, & the stating & exchanging of positions is the first step in the development of real politics, but discussion without a meaningful plan for practical action will leave us right where we are (in the best Tapia tradition!).

Yet it seems to me a reasonable mechanism for jump-starting real reform is staring the CRF in the face. The most widely agreed-on reform proposal is for a reconstitution of the upper house of the T&T parliament so as to to reflect not the whims of the leaders of the two main parties (as the senate currently does) but the genuine interests of the citizenry: the "big maco senate", as Lloyd Best calls it, or the "civic society senate", as Dennis Pantin prefers. But the unfamiliarity of the concept is an obstacle to such a development — it has no precedent in our constitutional history.

The CRF, whose main members are respected public figures, is well-positioned to organise a prototype "senate of the people". A practical plan of action could be drafted in mere hours: set a date & secure a location large enough to accommodate several hundred people, &, as inclusively as possible, invite the nation's significant interest groups to send one representative each to assemble & debate the questions of the day.

These groups would include the trade unions, the chambers of commerce, the Manufacturers Association, the Downtown Merchants Association, the Bankers Association, the Media Association, Pan Trinbago, TUCO, religious bodies, the UWI Students Guild, local government bodies; NGOs ranging from SERVOL to the Adult Literacy Tutors Association, from Fishermen & Friends of the Sea to Citizens for Conservation; professional associations representing everyone from geologists to lawyers to architects to actors; etc. etc. etc. It would be very important to invite the constituency groups of all active political parties to send delegates, chosen not by the national councils but by the constituencies themselves.

A "people's senate" composed along these lines would be a working model of meaningful representation in action. Its function would be more than merely symbolic: operating under parliamentary rules, it would act as an alternative debating chamber for any bills or motions introduced into the house of representatives or the "official" senate. The "people's senate" would obviously have no legal authority, but if it were organised with real consideration for civic representation & public perception, it could achieve a moral legitimacy, & thence a political legitimacy, powerful enough to influence national governance. It would also demonstrate the feasibility — or infeasibility — of a legislative body of this nature, prove for all to see whether the idea is unworkable fantasy or practical expedient. And it would be ideally positioned to act as a constituent assembly when the time comes to give our constitution the deep structural renovation it badly needs.

It would not be unthinkably difficult to get the thing going — it needs merely for a few people with public standing & public respect to announce the plan, issue invitations to delegates, & arrange the minimal infrastructure necessary for the "people's senate" to assemble. It would take some time, some energy, & a huge deal of optimism (the proposal is based on the hopeful belief that the people of T&T want to be properly represented & would be eager to participate via existing groups & organisations) — & the CRF has already demonstrated its willingness to expend time, energy & optimism in the national interest. What it needs, what we all need, is a definite mechanism to harness these resources into meaningful service.

So are we serious about changing for the better the way this country works? What are we waiting for?

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