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Our healthy democratic spirit
Posted: Thursday, November 5, 2009

By Derren Joseph
November 05, 2009

While some believe that the existing T&T Constitution is fine as is, there are others who believe that it is worth spending time reviewing it. The local and international environment, within which it was originally created, has evolved so much. As I follow the debate, both on-line and off-line, I see certain common themes emerging. The primary discussion is whether the present construction of the Office of the Prime Minister and the Office of the President still suits our needs. Specifically, there is much talk about the excessive or potentially conflicting power of the head of state and/or head of governmentóand whether they should be combined into a single office. Additionally, there is the issue of service commissions, Privy Council vs Caribbean Court of Justice, the issue of Permanent Secretaries and whether elected governments should have greater/less control of the Public Service, the strength/ weakness of Cabinet, should our leader be able to commit to international agreements, without parliamentary approval, issues of locality (such as should MPs reside in the area they represent), and even the right of "recall" where dissatisfied constituents can "fire" their MP.

This debate completely fascinates me, as it ties into every single facet of our life. It impacts our present and will impact generations to come. Last Saturday, October 24, saw the first in the series of consultations by Dr Ghany and his team, which included Mr Maukesh Basdeo and Ms Thomas Williams. It was held at Point Fortin library and was also broadcast on GISL channels 4 and 16. When the meeting started, I counted about 18 people, including myself. There was some concern expressed by participants about ineffective advertising. Organisers said it was advertised in the newspapers. I only read newspapers on-line, so saw no advertising. But I belong to many discussion groups on Yahoo and on Facebook. Among these is a group called Citizens 4 Change that circulated meeting details to its 1,100 members.

Kudos to those on-line groups that promote healthy debate on national issues.

Regardless of the level of advertising, however, I would imagine that a forum on constitutional reform would attract relatively small numbers of people. The reasons for this were briefly explored by a couple members of the Point Fortin meeting.

My view is that, to some extent, people prefer to be entertained rather than to spend time objectively analysing and focusing on deeper issues. It is as simple as that. Consider the Web-site YouTube, which Alexa ranks as the fourth-most popular Web-site on the planet. As an example, the Barack Obama channelís most popular speech is "A More Perfect Union" and it got 6.2 million viewers. But Obama on Ellen (the talk show on which he dances for the audience) got 8.2 million viewers. Of course, the two-minute video of a baby, sitting in a high chair and laughing, has got 94.7 million viewers (search for "hahaha" on YouTube)A Point Fortin school teacher, who made several valuable contributions, speculated that this type of event would not get many people to attend. He believes that more than ads are needed to raise our collective awareness. He even suggested something equivalent to the Financial Literacy Programmeóa constitution literacy programme, maybe? Ironically, though, the healthiest display of democracy that day came when the small group of OWTU members (in t-shirts that identified them as such), decided to stage a protest against the way the consultation was being handled.

They shouted from the back of the room, refused to use the microphone (so that television viewers could hear them) and called on all in attendance to "shut down" the meeting. They realised that few people followed them out, so they returned, tried one more time, and then left for good. Many people disagree with the varying drafts in circulation, and many even disagree with the consultation process. We are free to do so. But citizens who choose to contribute to the debate should be respected as we exercise our constitutional right to freedom of expression. Someone in the Point Fortin meeting put it nicely: people stay away, but how can they then complain that they didnít get a chance? Dr Ghany's next meeting is at Chaguanas Government Secondary school, on Helen Street, on Saturday, November 7th. It starts at 1.30 pm and scheduled to end at 5pm. See you there!

Remember the Working Document on Constitutional Reform for Public Consultation is available on the Web at:

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