Constitutional Reform

Stabroek News
April 8, 1999

The process of constitutional reform has begun, one year late. Disappointment has been expressed at the poor turnout at some of the public hearings. Some have attributed this to inadequate publicity, others to a lack of interest in the process. It may well be a combination of the two. As one letter writer pointed out, because of the late start and the tight schedule there was not much opportunity to have an extended campaign of publicity and education on the contents of the constitution. As against this, there had been an earlier process in the last parliament when people had the opportunity to make their presentations to a select parliamentary committee. There had also been extensive discussion in our editorial and letter columns of possible constitutional changes. Moreover, as Mr Ford points out in a letter below, people have the opportunity, and will do for another twelve days, to send in their written contributions to the commission. Those who are really interested cannot complain that they have had no opportunity to make submissions.

Constitutional reform is at bottom a complex process. It may seem relatively simple when one deals in broad concepts like should we retain an executive presidency or return to the previous model with a head of state with limited powers (similar to a constitutional monarch or ceremonial head of state) and the head of government, the prime minister, sitting in parliament (we believe there is massive support for the latter, namely a return to the original 1966 constitution, the imposition of an executive presidency in the 1980 constitution was not popular and was seen as undertaken for purely opportunist reasons, it has not been followed anywhere in Caricom, for example), should we retain the system of proportional representation, again imposed in an unprincipled manner in 1964, or should we revert to the constituency system we had in 1953, 1957 and 1961 or some combination of the two, should there be an upper house with limited powers, how should the judiciary and the service commissions be appointed, are the fundamental human rights clauses adequate or should they be refashioned and strengthened, and so on. But a proper understanding of these issues demands some awareness of the various forms of government, for example what are the advantages of pure parliamentary government as opposed to presidential government (there are many learned disquisitions on this, many political scientists see a pure parliamentary system as more flexible).

If there had been time, that is the kind of issue that could have been fully ventilated in booklets and by other methods of public information. As it is, one suspects that the process is largely under-informed, both at the popular level and even in the ranks of the politicians and the commissioners themselves, with some exceptions.

Whatever the submissions, the crux will come when the commissioners get down to business to do the hard work of formulating their report and recommendations. The division into committees to handle various topics may not make sense unless the Chairman of each committee has a clear basic understanding of the issues involved. Otherwise, he or she, with the best will in the world, will not be able to guide the process adequately. Of course, advisers will be available at that stage who can explain alternatives and suggest solutions but this must surely to some extent be a two way process. Some of the issues involved will require thought and prolonged discussion, especially if there is a consensus or even a fairly widespread demand for some sort of change in the system of government.

Ideally, the Commission will come up with a consensus report which the two main parties can then accept and implement. If not, if the Commission cannot agree on some issues, and a minority report is filed the process of bargaining will then take place between the two parties and ultimately in the National Assembly on the fashioning of a new constitution.

In the remaining twelve days all those who have something they want to say and have not been heard can forward their written submissions to Mr Haslyn Parris, the Secretary to the Commission, c\o Demerara Distillers Limited, 44B High Street, Kingston.