The debate in the House of Representatives on the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 was a landmark event in Trinidad and Tobago’s politics because of both the content of the proposed legislation and how Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar handled it. The most significant part of her strategy was to allow a conscience vote which freed every member of the People’s Partnership from following the guidelines of the whip, ensuring that no one would be penalised for breaching the principle of collective Cabinet responsibility.
She took a risk since her party, the United National Congress (UNC) did not have the majority required to pass the bill. But she also put faith in the Partnership. In the end, the bill passed although three of the five Congress of the People (COP) MPs disagreed with the government. Winston Dookeran and Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan voted with the opposition and Rodger Samuel abstained.
Opposition Leader Dr. Keith Rowley saw that as grounds for their dismissal from Cabinet. He argued that it would be wrong for dissenting Cabinet members to continue to sit at the decision making table and deal with confidential matters of State. He was wrong and the question demonstrated his ignorance of the democratic principle that guided the prime minister’s decision.
It was democracy at work, a kind of politics uncommon in T&T. The prime minister demonstrated her sincerity in advocating for term limits for PMs by dispensing with the heavy-handed maximum leader style of her predecessors. She was prepared to accommodate dissent as part of her vision of a participatory democracy that gives greater power to the people.
By contrast Dr. Rowley has a low tolerance for all dissenting views as demonstrated during the recent internal election in his party; remember when Danny Montano and Mariano Browne were taken to task and threatened with disciplinary action for criticising Dr. Rowley during a campaign which was meant to introduce a greater measure of democracy in the PNM? Dr. Rowley also accused Pennelope Beckles-Robinson of being disloyal to the PNM for suggesting that it might be a good idea to consider the proposal for proportional representation.
Mrs. Persad-Bissessar’s move was a manifestation of her philosophy of consultation and consensus, which are vital components of a coalition. She has always respected dissenting views and engaged in consultation before deciding what is best for the citizens and the country, even when such views had the potential to hurt her politically.
The people mattered more than her personal politics and that is what was the highlight, not only of the bill but also the manner in which she presented it to Parliament.
When Winston Dookeran stood up in Parliament and rejected ideas that took root inside the party he once led, he was rejecting constitutional reforms, which formed part of his mantra of new politics. Mrs. Persad-Bissessar’s decision to accommodate a diversity of views and opinion provided the flexibility needed to prevent a fracture that could have damaged all her work in coalition building, which allows the widest level of people involvement in the governance of the country.
Had she taken the undemocratic line that to disagree with the government would mean automatic expulsion she might have been facing the departure of the COP from the Partnership. Her bold moves to introduce constitutional change set a new standard for others to follow. Mrs. Persad-Bissessar has become the only leader since 1976 to introduce changes to the Constitution after widespread consultation.
Her predecessors talked about it but none of them did it.
Interestingly, the PM noted that all three proposals in the bill have been discussed and accepted internally by the PNM with the run-off vote enshrined in the party’s revised constitution. When the PNM rejected all of them by voting no, it signalled that it did not see the people as equal to the party. What was good for the PNM was not good for the people. The PNM, it seems, is content to have two classes of people in T&T, those who live by the PNM rules and the rest, who are lesser citizens.
That manner of PNM double-talk continues to hurt the party and keep it in the political jurassic age while the UNC and its partners have made quantum leaps forward in building a society where all are equal and the people have greater power over their destiny.
Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s approach to the Constitution (Amendment) Bill is one giant step closer to the true participatory democracy that she promised the people.