It is not surprising that the leader of the Congress of the People, Prakash Ramadhar, is calling for a referendum on the move from the Privy Council to the Caribbean Court of Justice. The use of the referendum to decide on important national issues, as well as the need for full constitutional reform, is a major pillar of the COP’s legislative agenda. In January, before the current falling-out with its main coalition partner, the COP unanimously passed a resolution on the matter, noting Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s promise to tackle constitutional reform this year. At that time, it seemed to be a matter on which the two major players in the People’s Partnership were in full agreement. However, in a statement on Sunday, Mrs Persad-Bissessar dismissed Mr Ramadhar’s recommendation, saying it was “never a formal stated policy nor agreed platform of the People’s Partnership.” She also said Trinidad and Tobago’s laws do not provide for such matters, and a constitutional amendment would be necessary to facilitate the holding of a referendum. The Prime Minister’s response to Mr Ramadhar is puzzling since full constitutional reform was one of the major items in the PP’s 2010 election manifesto. Indeed, mechanisms for a referendum process were among the promised reforms.
Has there been a change of heart on that matter? Also, whatever became of the PP’s promise that, “as a matter of urgency,” they would engage the population in consultations for constitutional reform? More than two years into their term, there is no sign of the establishment of the promised constitution reform commission to oversee these discussions. Meanwhile, the country is faced with a highly charged political environment where many issues that should be addressed under the banner of constitutional reform remain unresolved. There is, for example, the issue of integrity in public life. The Integrity Commission is now bogged down in legal challenges emanating from a very public falling-out between its chairman and deputy chairman, and is making no headway in dealing with the issues for which it was established. Another election promise from the PP was the right of recall for non-performing parliamentary representatives. In recent months there has been escalating public protests over bad roads and crumbling infrastructure, and at the core of all these demonstrations is the matter of inadequate representation.
Issues such as fixed election dates for national and local elections and limiting the prime minister to two successive terms as head of government attracted a great deal of interest and support when they were first raised on the campaign trail. Hopefully, these and other matters will be put back on the political front burner sooner rather than later. One of the few areas where some work has been done is the review of the relationship between the THA and central government. However, that process seems to have been driven mostly by the PNM-controlled THA and there is as yet no agreement on the areas of reform. Of course, the PP isn’t the only government that has promised constitutional reform. There have been hints, plans, promises and even some action, though limited, from the last three prime ministers. During his tenure, Basdeo Panday often expressed his desire for proportional representation to replace the first-past-the-post system. However, that never went beyond talk. Patrick Manning stirred up controversy with plans for an executive president, but made some headway, setting up a committee under the late Sir Ellis Clarke to come up with recommendations. A report was done but is yet to see the light of day. Now the ball is in the court of Kamla Persad-Bissessar. Given the fact that in five decades there have been only two major developments in the Constitution—independence in 1962 and adoption of a republican Constitution in 1976—the country is well overdue for another serious look at constitutional reform.