PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad, Wednesday August 27, 2014, CMC – Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar Tuesday led her coalition government’s fight for support of a controversial amendment to the Trinidad and Tobago Constitution in the Senate as hundreds of citizens protested outside the Parliament building.
Armed police watched as the protestors, representing the two main political parties, civic organisations, trade unions and others, paraded peacefully around the building, calling on the independent senators to vote against the measure.
The coalition government needs at least one of the nine independent senators to vote support the legislation that allows for a two consecutive term for the prime minister, the right to recall legislators and perhaps the most contentious, the need for a run-off vote in the event that a candidate fails to acquire the 50 per cent of the votes cast in a general election.
The government said the legislation was influenced by the recommendations coming out of the 21 public consultations held by the Constitution Reform Commission (CRF) chaired by the Legal Affairs Minister Prakash Ramadhar.
As she did in the Lower House earlier this month, Prime Minister Persad Bissessar said that the legislation would enhance the democracy in the oil-rich twin island republic, telling legislators she was also “not daunted” by the risk of committing “political suicide” in bringing the legislation.
“I am convinced that the reforms will go a long way to take the powers out of the hands of the politician and out in the hands of the people.”
She said she is of the view that “we must not lead from the tower (and) we must lead on the battlefield” and that the legislation would \’widen and deepen our democracy”.
She said the legislation was in keeping with the promises made by the coalition partners when they campaigned ahead of the 2010 general elections, insisting “my interest must be in the best, if not best, the better interest of our people”.
She said she was also prepared to take the risk of political suicide, adding “we cannot continue to do business as usual”.
She said she ws pleased with the debate now in the country following the decision of the government to introduce the legislation and that “democracy is alive and working.
“I would have been happier if some of these voices were at the 21 consultations held by the committee,” she said defending the decision not to delay debate on the bill.
“The time has come to not just talk the talk but also walk,” she said, adding “what is so fundamentally wrong with a run-off.
But Opposition Senator Faris Al-Rawi said that the government had sandwiched the run-off measure in the legislation between “two roses” adding that the whole situation has a “potential for civil chaos.
“The run-off for which there was no consultation says accept it because you have a right of recall, you have a term limit,” he said, adding “this is a recipe for disaster.
Al-Rawi said that the government was contemplating using the upcoming budget to further entrench itself in office by announcing the establishment of a Constituency Fund that would provide millions of dollars to constituencies.
“The Prime Minister has told us today that everybody should be comforted because the Minister of Finance is going to come forward, he is going to have a Constituency Fund as a line item, all constituencies are to get 10 million dollars (One TT dollar =US$0.16 cents) and that the Attorney General will bring some kind of legislation …
“Honourable Prime Minister we don’t know the details of what you are speaking about for a number of reasons. Number one, your government has never condescended to something called a legislative agenda so we don’t know what you have”.
He said the legislative agenda was ad hoc at best “making it up as you go along” he said, telling legislators that this government had spent the most history in four years than any other government before it.
Independent Senator Helen Drayton she had never witnessed “so mch passion” among the population as regards to the legislation, adding I think this augurs well, whether you support it or not…it is a testimony that we can be dynamic”.
She reminded legislators even as they were now debating the bill, there were people in some parts of the world who were being “slaughtered” for their religious and political beliefs.
She said she believed there was not enough consultation on the legislation, adding “if it is an important change that goes to the very heart of the democratic process then some consultation is necessary and therefore what has happened it has gone against the grain of people expressed reason why they want electoral change which is a fairer system”.
The debate is continuing.