FEATURE: Constitutional Reform or Diversionary Tactic?

By Peter Ischyrion

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, July 25, 2008 – Prime Minister Patrick Manning expected the flack.

“You know how I am a lucky man, especially with certain segments of the media,” he said sarcastically as he read the proposals contained in a “working document” on constitutional reform in Trinidad and Tobago.

The prime minister said he wanted the nation to understand that the proposals were not of his government and that “Manning is proposing nothing”.

At a convention of his ruling People’s National Movement (PNM) on Jul. 13, Manning said that the working document was based on discussions from a roundtable group of academics and politicians, and could be refined into a White Paper on government policy that would be debated by the population.

But Sir Ellis Clarke, described by Martin Daly, the president of the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago (LATT), as the “doyen of constitutional lawyers” and a member of the roundtable, has publicly disowned the document.

“He (Manning) says it is not his. I don’t know whose draft it is. It certainly is not mine and I don’t think anybody on the roundtable will claim it,” said Sir Ellis, who drafted the country’s republican constitution in 1962.

The document has never been made public, but Manning said it outlined a new approach to governance in this oil-rich twin island republic.

President of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions and NGOs (FITUN), David Abdullah, warned that any proposed plans to amend the constitution should be done in full public glare.

Abdullah, also a member of the Constitutional Reform Forum, an NGO that is holding nationwide public discussions on reforming the constitution, said it was important for the prime minister to indicate who are the authors of this latest working document.

“Why should we be wasting time discussing something that is not an official document?” Abdullah told IPS, adding there is need for the authorities to establish a secretariat that would collate all the documents regarding constitution reform.

“We need this more than this type of wise man approach,” he said, recalling that more than a year ago, a group involving academics, trade unionists and others went across the country holding public discussions and “that report has not been made public”.

According to the prime minister, the working document proposes a cabinet to be selected largely from outside of the Parliament.

“One of the advantages of this is that it frees members of Parliament to participate in a committee system that can provide proper oversight to governmental activities,” said Manning, adding that the working document also proposes a presidential system of government.

Under the proposed system, the president would address Parliament twice yearly on the state of Trinidad and Tobago and his address will be a subject of debate by the legislators.

The document discusses new roles for the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), the independence of the judiciary, the recruitment of senior public servants from the private sector, and also outlines how Trinidad and Tobago would integrate politically with another regional country.

Regarding the judiciary, Manning said that the document recommends that the judiciary remain entirely independent in the exercise of its judicial functions, but that its administrative functions be a matter for the executive and that its administrative functions are carried out through a Ministry of Justice.

Manning said the common thread running through the entire document is the principle of accountability, insisting “nobody must have absolute power”.

But former chief justice Satnarine Sharma has said that experience over the years has shown that the judiciary has been treated as if it were some “government department or one of several ministries of government”.

“This is most poignantly illustrated when the judiciary has to approach the executive, particularly for funds,” he said in a letter to a local newspaper, agreeing with senior lawyers that the judiciary must receive enough funds and assistance from the executive “so as to enable it to meet a minimum standard so that it can deliver justice efficiently.”

Former attorney general Kamla Persad Bissessar said the proposals outlined by Manning were “another secret constitution which manifests the prime minister’s obsession for total control of the independent institutions of the land”.

“Any interference with the judiciary really takes us backward, it is retrograde…it demonstrates his attitude of wanting to control the judiciary and that is very frightening,” she said, recalling the famous Latimer House Guidelines, which were signed in Britain in 1998 provides that the financing of the Judiciary shall be deemed “essential to the proper functioning of the judiciary”.

Daley said that the LATT would be meeting to discuss the proposals outlined by Manning, but warns that with lip service being paid to the independence of the judiciary by the government “it may not be obvious to all where executive control of court administration will lead”.

Daley said that one of the grounds for irrelevance is “that the country has nothing to benefit from a sharpened focus on constitutional reform when it is totally battered and shattered by rampant violent crime in which the prime minister shows no interest.”

The local media have also questioned the prime minister’s focus on constitutional reform at this time, with the NEWSDAY newspaper saying “it was a tacit dismissal of the serious concerns of citizens who increasingly feel unsafe even in their own home”.

The Express newspaper felt that the proposals outlined by Manning would “decidedly shift public attention and national dialogue away from more pressing issues”, including the murder of nearly 300 people so far this year.

“The prime ministerial disclosures of what this latest working document proposes cannot be seen as anything but a diversion,” the paper said in an editorial.

Opposition Leader Basdeo Panday has described the measures as a back door approach to constitutional reform and insists that the prime minister disclose the authors of the working document.

“If it is not his, it is not nobody’s, then who are the authors of this document,” said Panday adding “I don’t think constitutional reform ought to be in this piecemeal kind of way.”

“What we need is an entire constitution which, when put together, will conduce the advancement of the people,” said Panday.

The minority opposition Congress of the People party has called on the prime minister to say whether he intends to call a referendum or another general election on the proposals. (IPS)