By George Alleyne
July 15, 2009 – newsday.co.tt
Issues of personal conscience with respect to policy positions held by two of the nation’s legislators — Independent Senator Gail Merhair and Opposition United National Congress Chaguanas West Member of Parliament, Austin “Jack” Warner — have dominated national public issues thinking within recent days. Senator Merhair, with respect not only to her support of the controversial Municipal Corporation (Amendment) Bill, but the comments she made immediately prior to her casting of her vote, and Mr Warner’s voting in favour of Government’s Securities Bill 2009.
Senator Merhair’s statement that she had sought the advice of a constitutional expert is puzzling. “This was made very clear to me, I would say,”she, reportedly told the Senate, “as an independent senator, that I must never thwart the wishes of the other place because it is within the sphere that there reside representatives of the elected people of Trinidad and Tobago.” Was it that what she may have meant to convey, was that she had been advised that an independent senator should not adopt as a policy position the thwarting of all or any Government legislation.
What is of equal importance, and this has been largely ignored, is that Senator Merhair by consulting the unnamed “constitutional expert” on what position she should adopt on the Municipal Corporation (Amendment) Bill and actually taking it may have compromised, however unintentionally, her function as an independent senator. If I do not pursue this it is because I have in the past, repeatedly, called for the abolishing of the unelected Senate.
Meanwhile, duly elected House of Representatives member, Jack Warner, who is also a Deputy Leader of the United National Congress, has been criticised for voting with the Government on the Securities Bill 2009. This, after Warner actually sought to attend a Party meeting at which it is understood the Bill was supposed to have been discussed and the Party’s position on the piece of Government legislation indicated. It is a matter of record that relevant UNC members walked out and, ironically, the Party’s Deputy Leader was neither apprised of the position the Party had planned taking, nor allowed to make a contribution of his own.
The action by the Opposition UNC in expecting one of its members, in this case a senior member, to blindly and without even being briefed, adopt a legislative course of action, ordered by the Party, runs contrary both to the Westminster system, which Trinidad and Tobago often boasts of following, and to what is practised by, for example, the Democrats with respect to legislation in Congress.
Both the ruling People’s National Movement and the Opposition have been able to get away with this because of the apparently limitless power of the Office of Political Leader in both parties. In the People’s National Movement, for example, no Party member will be selected to contest a seat in a General Election if, whoever is the Political Leader objects to his/her nomination.
In the home of the Westminster system, the United Kingdom, the various Constituency Associations of, say, the Conservative Party, select candidates for election to the House of Commons and not the Political or Party Leader. They have the sole responsibility and no one else. In addition, while in the womb of the Westminster system, the Political Leaders of both the Conservative and Labour Parties are elected, not as in Trinidad and Tobago at Party Conventions, but by the Members of the House of Commons of the respective parties. Prime Ministers have been known to have been pressured out of office by their Parties’ elected representatives. This has happened no fewer than six times since early in the last century in the case of Conservative Prime Ministers and three occasions re Labour Prime Ministers.
In the United States, Presidents have in several instances been prevented by their own Party from having legislation enacted as a result of elected members of their Party, in Congress, voting against it. In addition, Leaders of the opposing Party, have borne witness to Government legislation which they had directed should be voted against and even blocked, passed because of Congressional support by their own Party members. Jack Warner’s historic vote will one day be saluted as more in keeping with the democratic approach than the narrow view of “yours not to reason why, yours but to do and” vote. And worse, he was expected to vote without even knowing about it, officially.
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