By Andre Bagoo
September 1, 2013 – newsday.co.tt
PARLIAMENT will meet this week to vote on unprecedented legislation seeking to reform local government by introducing a system of proportional representation.
The reforms were unveiled by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar at a post-Cabinet media briefing on Thursday. It is proposed that aldermen — who are currently hand-picked by elected councillors — be chosen based on how many votes each party ends up getting overall.
But when the elected MPs gather at the International Waterfront Centre, Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain at 10.30am on Friday, it will not mark the first occasion that proportional representation has taken centre stage in the politics of Trinidad and Tobago.
Proportional representation — or a system whereby seats reflect the margins of victory, meaning even minorities have voices — was a central plank of the 1974 Report of the Constitution Commission of Trinidad and Tobago, chaired by Sir Hugh Wooding.
In fact, the Government’s current proposal can arguably be traced to the Wooding Commission’s report which stated on page 60: “We have recommended that elections including local government elections should be conducted under the mixed system of proportional representation. This would mean that party strength throughout Trinidad and Tobago should be more accurately reflected in this electoral college”.
But the Prime Minister of the day, the PNM’s Eric Williams, did not accede to the proposal. He argued it would be “a dagger to the heart of the PNM”. As a result of his concerns over the PNM, the nation’s Republican Constitution of 1976 did not reflect any proportional representation. Still, the issue would not die.
The Hyatali Commission, under the NAR, considered the issue again in 1987 and then the Sir Ellis Clarke Draft Constitution of 2006 made a concession to proportional representation for the Senate, alongside an executive president. The Principles of Fairness Draft Constitution of 2006 also sought to introduce proportional representation to the Senate, while leaving the House of Representatives as it is now.
Former Chief Justice Michael de la Bastide — who sat on both the Wooding and Hyatali commissions — last week welcomed the proposals, calling on citizens to examine their merits. He noted the system encourages more people to vote, with the knowledge that that vote will not be wasted, and also addresses the unfairness of situations where parties sometimes get a large share of votes but no seats. For instance, this was the case with the ONR, COP and TOP in elections each held in different decades.
“In our report, we had recommended a mixed system of proportional representation in Parliament,” de la Bastide noted of the Wooding Commission Report.
“The current proposal appears to be almost a pilot project in the context of the local government councils and I think its interesting because I am still in support of proportional representation in a mixed form. It helps to soften some of the inequities produced by the first-past-the-post system.”
Some, like the Prime Minister last week, have argued that because the proposal involves the submission of a list of aldermen candidates for each party in advance, this results in “no surprises”. This is regarded as potentially a major improvement on what currently happens with the elected councilors often picking persons not known to the public to be mayor.
In fact, the current system is such that of all of the last batch of mayors, none were directly elected by the people! For example, many members of the population at large still have not heard of Ghassan Youseph, the Mayor of Arima.
The first-past-the-post system is also regarded as a winner takes all system which sometimes is open to not reflecting the true results. It is said that the victor’s power becomes disproportionate to their actual support. In addition to the ONR, COP and TOP election results in the 1980s, 2000s and 2010s, even earlier in our history came moments when voters might have scratched their heads.
This is arguably what happened when in the 1950 general elections the Butler Party won seven of the eighteen available legislative council seats. The British government had concerns about Butler as a radical and instead asked the other Independent members to form the government. Consequently, Albert Gomes was made the first Chief Minister by the Governor and not Butler.
Proportional representation is regarded, then, as something of an improvement to the first-past-the-post system. But how does it work in practice and are there difficulties? Ask Guyana.
Guyana’s constitution, revised in 1980, provides for an electoral system of proportional representation under which the country is divided into ten regions voting for 25 members of the National Assembly with another 40 seats being allocated nationally on the proportion of votes cast for each party. To control the assembly — which makes the laws of the country and initiates its money bills, including the budget — a party must secure more than 50 percent of the ballots. At the same time, according to the Guyana constitution, the president, in whom executive authority lies, only requires control of the largest block (termed a “plurality of the vote”).
This system has caused problems in Guyana to the extent that opposition parties have, under the current President Donald Ramotar, united to veto much Government activity, including the budget!
But advocates for proportional representation say it remains a better version of democracy. They argue that if difficulties arise, this is because there is a plurality of voices and no single dominant voice. The difficulties, they suggest, are a natural by-product and expression of that diversity of views in any system where people are free to elect their leaders.
Critics, though, say when minority governments happen, this makes getting things done difficult. Others countered that this is only the case when there are minority governments or situations when the population chooses to not give one party the dominant voice. This, this say, could in fact be a good thing encouraging true dialogue and collaboration and making it possible for every voice to count.
Proportional representation is also currently used in several countries, including Australia, Costa Rica, Germany, India, Mexico, Russia and Venezuela.
The path to implementation of the proposals appeared clear last week after Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar said the legislation requires only a simple majority and after the Elections and Boundaries Commission chairman Dr Norbert Masson indicated that once legally sound, there would be no impediment to the provisions coming in force in time for the October 21 poll. If implemented, the legislation will potentially mark a major change in local politics: next on the agenda is reforming the Parliament and how senators are selected.