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PR vs First-Past-Post
At the Marlborough House Conference which determined our Independence Constitution, Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams led the Government delegation and Dr Rudranath Capildeo led the parliamentary opposition delegation. According to an audio/video record, Sir Ellis Clarke reminisced that at the conference he was seated between Williams and Capildeo, as a buffer, so to speak. He further alluded to the fact that Capildeo was guilty of making a number of unprintable comments, but he thought that Williams may not have heard them due to the position of his (Williams’s) hearing aid.
However, when the negotiations apparently reached a stalemate, Williams turned directly to Capildeo and said, Sir Ellis’s exact words, “We are the only two intelligent people in the room, so I don’t see why we can’t get together and sort things out.” They both got together in a tête-à-tête and at the end of it there was “plain sailing.” I’m not aware of any record of how the discussion went or what were the concessions made on either side. But I presume that Capildeo’s fears may have been allayed somewhat. It appears that Williams conceded to Capildeo’s choice of Chief Justice, in the person of Sir Hugh Wooding, whose stature was generally admitted across the board.
On his retirement, Sir Hugh was once again prevailed upon to take Williams’s “chestnuts out of the fire” by assuming the thankless role of chairman of the Constitution Review Commission. Dr Selwyn Ryan was a member of the Wooding Commission. Some time ago, Prof Ryan may well have sounded an alert, in one of his weekly newspaper columns, when he opined that T&T in fact already has an “executive presidency” which masquerades as if it were an expression of the Westminster model with all its assumptions about ministerial and collective responsibility and accountability and (ultimate) accountability to Parliament.
Such concern is not necessarily of recent vintage, as the framers of our post-Independence Constitution seemed not to have taken into account the lacunae in our Constitution, adumbrated against the background of our peculiar social and political realities, which allowed, and perhaps facilitated, such an eventuality.
Dr Williams’s response to the Wooding report on constitutional reform was, to put it mildly, simply boorish, paranoid, with ad hominem attacks on the commissioners and the spurious suggestion that they were out to destroy his political party.
What, indeed, were the commission’s concerns? A major concern was “...the potential hegemonic nature of political parties that are perceived to be ethnically based.”
If I may also add the apparently insensitive and accompanying tendency to display “triumphalism.” The proposals were designed to reduce the power of prime ministerial office and make the parliamentary composition reflective of and sensitive to the range of electoral support. Now, don’t ask me how it can be done but I am of the view that office does strange things to the incumbent and vice versa. So they need to be protected against each other and “we the people” also need to be protected against both.
The cornerstone of the commission’s proposals, as I understand it, was a judicious amalgam of the first-past-the-post and proportional representation electoral systems. Pure or modified forms of proportional representation could be the panacea for our political problems in respect of the perceived inability of the first-past-the-post system to produce a representative administration with the concomitant legitimacy and moral authority for governance.
On the other hand, proportional representation tends to spawn a multiplicity of ethnic, cultural, religious and other constituencies, which provide the breeding ground for all sorts of combinations and permutations of inherently fluid coalitions—thereby resulting in unstable “revolving door governments.”
Now there’s the rub. So what perspective should inform the parameters of constitutional reform? Should a proposed constitution acknowledge and reflect the societal faultiness, as they are, and set up institutions with the machinery for managing the ensuing tensions and conflicts that could otherwise tear the society apart?
Alternatively, should one focus on the larger vision, thereby creating institutions that, while acknowledging the legitimate societal divisions, do not institutionalise or legitimise divisiveness and antipathies. The hackneyed shibboleths of “national unity” and “one love” claptrap retrieved, opportunistically, from the political dustbin have, in my view, long lost their lustre as we have grown to discern that there’s a distinct difference between the inane platitude of “moving on the wings of political love” and expedient, opportunistic “love on the run.” Nuff said.
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