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Games With Reform
Posted: Wednesday, August 20, 2003

by George Alleyne, Newsday / TT

The Opposition United National Congress, while trumpeting its demand for constitution reform as a precondition for parliamentary support of critically needed legislation, indeed of any legislation at all, has never troubled to publicly articulate its position on the reform it sees, or pretends to see as needed.

What is interesting is that there has been no groundswell of opinion in Trinidad and Tobago, either genuine or artificially generated by the United National Congress, for specific changes to the Constitution. It is this lack of a body of opinion, as well as that of Opposition articulation, that makes it difficult to accept the UNC as being serious about reform. Yet, assuming that it is indeed serious, and not playing games with the issue of constitution reform, why did it fail to act decisively on reform, or seek to introduce the changes it now stridently parrots as necessary, during its administrations of 1995-2000 and 2000-2001. But even as I state this I recognise that there are many individuals who not only firmly believe that there is need for constitutional reform, but have ideas about what they see as needed. Others have merely jumped on the bandwagon of "constitution reform", because they see it as the in thing, not unlike a woman, who latches on to a fashion, whether it suits her or not, but because "everyone else is wearing it," or the chap who buys brand name sneakers because of the price tag.

A constitution, however, is not a garment, a style or a pair of "watchekongs" that you wear today and change tomorrow. There has to be a valid reason for change. Even the United States, which even when it built into its constitution, perhaps the term is introduced, the philosophy that a constitution was not an absolute and therefore should be subject to change being allowed, nonetheless made it difficult for this change to be achieved. Today, a little more that one percent of the suggested amendments, 2500-plus, to the Constitution has been passed into law. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served as President of the United States of America from 1932 to 1945, and had been one of the most popular American Presidents, pressed for changes to the US Constitution, and in a 1939 address declared: "You will find no justification in the language of the Constitution for delay in the reforms which the mass of the American people now demand." The American people rejected his rhetoric, and it was ironic that the first Amendment made to the United States Constitution, following on FDR's 1939 outburst, was that of the 22nd Amendment, ratified in 1951, six years after Roosevelt's death, allowing a President to serve only two terms, with the intent of staving off any possibility of a presidential dictatorship. Roosevelt had been elected for four successive terms of office. But I have strayed. There is a change I should like to see made to the Constitution and it deals with Section 68 [1], which states: "The President, acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister, may at any time prorogue or dissolve Parliament."

The clear intent of 68 [1] is that should a Prime Minister tacitly or otherwise lose the control of Parliament, and there is the possibility that he could be removed by the votes of sufficient Members of the House of Representatives, that he should be constitutionally able to advise the President to dissolve Parliament. Readers of this Column may recall that toward the end of 2001, three UNC Members of the House of Representatives, Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, Trevor Sudama and Ralph Maraj, had signalled they would not support a critical Bill, which meant that, in combination with the votes of People's National Movement MPs, they could have seen the collapse of the then Basdeo Panday Administration. The Constitution should have been so framed as to have allowed the President to call upon the person, who in his opinion commands the support of the majority of members in the House of Representatives to become Prime Minister. I have always suspected that particular sub Section was introduced at the instance of late Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams, who had been clearly taken aback by the distinct support exhibited by PNM Party groups for Karl Hudson-Phillips, in the aftermath of his declaration on September 28, 1973 at the Party's Annual Convention that the PNM would have to choose a new Political Leader. Two persons were nominated to succeed Dr. Williams, then Attorney General, Karl Hudson-Phillips, and Kamaluddin Mohammed, then Minister of Health and Local Government.

Hudson-Phillips received the endorsement of 224 PNM Party groups, while Mohammed received that of 26. Some 177 groups abstained. Williams, it was stated, moved to pre-empt the sort of situation faced by Panday in 2002, and which he feared being confronted with. [I ask the reader to forgive me for using a preposition to end a sentence with.] For the record, Williams later changed his mind about not standing for re-election as Political Leader of the People's National Movement! It is ironic that Williams' reported action with respect to Section 68 [1]would later save Panday from political embarrassment. But the United National Congress must not parrot the need for constitution reform, like a Good Friday rah-rah, while not, as I noted earlier, providing specifics of the amendments it would like to see debated, approved and ratified.

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