Sunday, December 08, 2002

In discussing constitution reform in T&T over the last few weeks, I've repeatedly invoked the ideas of Lloyd Best; it must be clear to my half-dozen readers that I wholeheartedly agree with his argument that the fundamental issue is representation; & the version of a "people's senate" which I proposed recently is based on his thinking as well.

In yesterday's Express Best detailed his own practical prescription for reform of T&T's legislative machinery (as he has in the past). Unfortunately, some sort of bug in the Express website has made all of yesterday's op-ed pieces inaccessible. I reported this problem to the webmaster, hoping it would soon be fixed so I could actually link to Best's column. But as of this morning nothing's been done; so I'm reluctantly posting linklessly, & quoting more extensively than I otherwise would [UPDATE: the site's been fixed; read Best's column here]:

"Since self-government was first mooted, more than 50 years of our energies have been almost systematically misdirected. The signature demand of a free people is effective representation. However, it has almost certainly been obscured by the ineluctable necessity to resort to an ethnic mobilisation, mainly and increasingly, but not only, on the basis of race....

"It has taken the futility of a country hung on this basis and therefore of a parliament repeatedly stymied or nearly so, to bring us to our senses. We are still only groping for the new dispensation — without as yet being in a position to convert it into machinery and operations....

"... the banner demand can only be for effective representation at the level of central government. We can begin only where experience has left us and start with the agencies to which the attention of the public is turned. Given present imperfections in parliament and government, two agencies seem to be called for. Instead of a lower (first) and an upper (second) chamber, operating in the shape of a House of Representatives and a Senate, what we need are one single House of Government and another House of Parliament.

"Our problem has always been, precisely, that our institutional arrangements have amounted to one House (of Government) that invariably converts the other house into a pathological surrogate. This implies, as we are now painfully aware, that the House of Government we are in search of already exists, even if it needs to be adapted to the new requirements of reform. What we cannot simply carve out of existing institutions, and must create or invent anew, is a House of Parliament, even if there are some elements and some relevant experience on which we are able to count.

"In most ways the character of the House of Parliament is easy to outline. For one thing, it must offer the widest possible representation to popular interests. This entails two conditions. First, this house must be of ample size so as to guarantee a catchment of the largest dimensions.... Second, this house cannot be a nominated chamber. It can only be one that is elected, even if such election, in part, might come down to a selection of representatives by each of the great diversity of national interests....

"The intention of these provisions is to ensure that, as far as possible in the initial stages, the members of the House of Parliament, as well as the chamber as a collective, would be wholly autonomous. They must in no way be dependent on or beholden to the members of the Executive or House of Government....

"For a second thing, this House of Parliament must be endowed with the full powers of a legislature to inform, instruct and discipline the Executive, located in the other House (of Government). This function it would carry out by debating and voting on all legislation, whether initiated by itself or by the Executive....

When we turn to the other house, the House of Government, we are immediately transported into the realm of the Executive. We have always operated this house under the rubric of the Legislative Council and thereafter the House of Representatives, egregiously a misnomer.

"The long-standing provision that the Executive be a committee of the Legislature has in effect been the permissive condition for the latter to be subordinate to the former....

"We shall come to see that our proposal for two separate houses, including a House of Government, would seek to distribute responsibilities in such a way as to achieve not so much Montesquieu's imprecise and elusive 'separation of powers' but more an independence of agencies, appropriate to WI requirements."

I'm yet to hear a proposal as compelling as Best's; it's clear from his analysis that no one has thought about these issues as deeply or as rigorously as he has. But this great question remains: how to make such revolutionary reform actually happen? My belief has been that a credible alliance of concerned citizens — like the Constitution Reform Forum — will have to act boldly & set up a new mechanism outside the official structure in order to demonstrate the viability & legitimacy of major reform. Damien has argued via email that there's no general public interest in constitution reform & hence all this high-minded debate is doomed to failure. He also wonders, as a few other commentators have, whether T&T's ruling elite would really countenance any change that could give meaningful political power to the masses.

The only immediate solution, it seems to me, is to keep arguing these questions as loudly & as publicly as possible.

Meanwhile, B.C. Pires interviews Best in today's Guardian (not online). I'll quote only his response to the final question:

Pires: How do you feel about being dismissed as "too high" or irrelevant to the ordinary man?

Best: My ideas are everywhere. If you take a newspaper, it's hard to find a morning in which someone is not referring to something I said, and not only in Trinidad. People who don't like me try to deal with me by saying that.

No comments: