Constitutional Reform Imperatives
Posted: Saturday, March 1, 2003
By STEPHEN KANGAL, CARONI
I wish to pledge my support for the current initiatives being pursued and articulated in Parliament, in the Press, within electronic media as well as amongst the national community that are geared to effect a radical reform of the provisions of our 1976 Republican Constitution. We should be wary of changing our constitution as we change Acts of Parliament. However, there is ample empirical evidence and compelling contextual considerations to merit a thorough and expeditious review of the existing one.
It sees to me that as our society and its political culture changes and matures along the path to nationhood, laws enacted to regulate and preside over our development as a people must also change. Lawmakers in 1976 could not reasonably anticipate the rate and level of change that have characterised our growth and development as a people during the last 30 years fuelled principally by increasing petro-dollars and our abundant native intelligence. But even if they did, the maximum leadership syndrome that dominated our politics in 1976 could not accommodate the advice of these futurologists.
The basic elements and contours of our political culture have also undergone a transformation process radically departing from those political and social conditions and values that underpinned the political era when the 1976 Constitution was drafted.
The society was stymied of opportunities to articulate their positions owing to a monopolistic and suffocating political control of the electronic media.
The 1962 Constitution incorporated and represented the prescriptions of the Westminster model but accommodated minor modifications for the governance of newly-independent T&T. On the other hand the 1976 Constitution took its cue from the policies, programmes and priorities of militant ethno-nationalism. That ideology constituted the philosophical and political underpinnings of the invincible PNM party and its maximum leadership that dominated, monopolised, configured and fashioned our politics and all other aspects of national life until 1986.
The DNA of the late, all- powerful Dr. Williams was strewn all across the provisions of the 1976 Constitution. The imbalanced political configuration of the Parliament of pre-1976 and the legacy of the 1971 No Vote Campaign impacted in the Constitution formulation process. It represented the mind-set of Dr.Williams. The 1962 and 1976 Constitutions have entrenched a constitutionalised dictatorship that is detrimental to the participatory aspirations of our emerging democratic society.
The practice of the Westminster Cabinet Government alienates and subordinates The People’s Parliament. Cabinet can circumvent and the exclusive law creating capacity of Parliament by negotiating bilateral and international agreements and simply introducing enabling legislation in Parliament when necessary.
This Constitution is in need of radical reform to reflect and pander to the new prevailing socio-economic and political reality. I urge the establishment of a duly appointed Constitution Commission to conduct the necessary widest possible consultations to take on board the recommendations of the population. We need to strengthen and expand and give form and function to the participatory nature of our democracy to break away from the cosmetics of spending 5 minutes in a polling station every 5 years after which we are to all intents and purposes disenfranchised and rendered dispensable by the nature of the first-past-the post adversarial politics. We must consider new political paradigms to achieve a more representative and constituency-responsive democracy.
Our Constitution must celebrate and benefit from the transformation from the discriminatory politics of ethno-nationalism to the contemporary, equity-based politics of multiculturalism that found initial expression in the meltdown of the PNM in 1986. Our society is being propelled by the forces of rapid internal and external changes. We are a more literate, articulate and politically conscious people. We are more conscious of the correlation between political activism and the fair and equitable participation in the rewards of the society. The mushrooming print and electronic, the Internet and Cable serve as the catalyst for mobilising and increasing popular participation in good and enlightened governance on an ongoing way.
To provide some indications of the insufficiency/ inadequacy of the 1976 Constitution let us refer to the generally recognised increasing extensions of coastal state jurisdictions that are so fundamentally important for an off-shore oil/gas producing island developing state such as T&T. The Constitution must reflect the essence of this new reality.
For example in the Preliminary Section of the 1976 Constitution the territory T&T is being illegally defined as inclusive of the sea-bed and the subsoil of the continental shelf outside of the Territorial Sea when the jurisdiction that we exercise under the regime of the continental shelf is the exclusive right over mineral resources and not ownership of the seabed and subsoil. Additionally a new corpus of laws has been agreed to by the international community principles of which must be reflected in the Constitution in setting the limits of our maritime jurisdictions especially since we are shelf-locked with both Guyana and Barbados and may not be able to claim our full 200 mile exclusive economic zones. We are now an archipelagic state consisting of 23 islands.
The seabed and the subsoil constitute the richest segment of our national patrimony. This fact must be accorded the legal priority that it merits in the supreme law of our land.
In respect of Cabinet exercising its law creating capacity may I refer to the practice and procedures for acceding to/ ratifying international and bilateral agreements. Cabinet has the competence to make T&T a party to all agreements without prior parliamentary consent. For example the 1991 TT/Venezuela Delimitation Treaty, an agreement that gave security of tenure to off-shore hydrocarbon installations, was concluded and became effective without parliamentary consent. The territory of T&T was ceded in the process without parliamentary approval. I do not think that this most important bilateral agreement ever reached Parliament. I suggest that prior parliamentary approval must be accorded to all agreements before T&T can become a contracting party and bind the state. This is an expression of our democracy, transparency, accountability and the acknowledged supremacy/monopoly of Parliament in the law-creating process.
The New reformed Constitution must regulate the legal status, conduct and operations of political parties. In this regard we need to address the question of campaign financing including funding from Central Government to prevent what I would term the growing trend in the hijacking of the democratic process by unprincipled political investors and manipulators. Political parties constitute the most important organisations and preside over the affairs T&T but they now enjoy the status of private clubs and must be regulated.
T&T must now join enlightened and progressive states such as Canada, Sweden and Australia in declaring multiculturalism as the official policy response to manage and harness our rich ethnic diversity. This declaration must constitute one of the fundamental cornerstones of our Constitution in clear recognition of the need to permit every creed and race to find an equal place in this rainbow country. Alienation and marginalisation, the fall out of ethno-nationalism has failed to weld and integrate our peoples/ country together with the result that we are politically polarised as we were in 1956.
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