May 5, 1999
In its proposals to the Constitution Reform Commission the People's National Congress has called for an inclusionary form of government but not by means of executive power sharing which it refers to as a "protean and elusive concept". Rather, it places the emphasis on a reformed parliament managed by an all party committee with powerful parliamentary committees headed by members of the opposition and with no ministers in them. These standing committees would cover a range of topics and would have the power to subpoena witnesses to give evidence. They would interview all constitutional office holders at public hearings including judges, the Ombudsman, the Auditor General and Ambassadors to enquire into their suitability. There would be a parliamentary oversight committee to hold hearings for the appointment of the Commissioner of Police and Chief of Staff and a two thirds majority would be required for their appointment. All Bills would go to a Select Committee before they were put on the Order Paper for the second and third readings.
The party also calls in its submission for strengthened and reorganised local government, starting with the Regional Democratic Councils. These local government bodies should have the power to raise revenue by taxation and be responsible for a range of activities. It should be made clear that these Councils are part of the local government system and not agencies of the central government and the public servants working with these councils should move over into the local government service and not be centrally employed. The party refers to a State Paper on the Re-organisation of the Local Government System which it had laid in parliament on 5th August, l980 while the PNC was in power but had never been implemented. This had called for local government units that were large enough and had sufficient resources to be viable development units. It had proposed that there should be no party lists for elections to the Neighbourhood Councils, the smallest local government units.
These proposals are interesting but the experience with local government so far has not been encouraging. In the first place, people will have to get used to the idea of paying realistic rates and taxes and other fees to make the system viable. This is not the case now. Secondly, training programmes will be required to inculcate procedural and administrative routines and a level of accountability. Many councils now are not functioning adequately so giving them more duties could make it worse.
There are some other interesting ideas in this submission which shows signs of hasty completion as it is riddled with typographical errors. It is proposed that freedom of the media be firmly enshrined and that the State should be forbidden, directly or indirectly, to own any commercial media house. It calls for a Freedom of Information Act (one is at this moment being introduced in Trinidad), it says the State should not engage in any economic activity that competes unfairly with the private sector through subsidies or other concessions, it calls for a permanent full time Chairman of the Elections Commission chosen from a list put up by the opposition and appointed by a two thirds majority in parliament, it would strengthen the provisions against arbitrary detention and allow for punitive damages to be awarded.
Three other senior members of the party have suggested executive power sharing in their submission but the leadership of the party has apparently concluded that this is not viable. The proposals for a stronger parliament with new and shared responsibilities and for the devolution of power are achievable and these can now provide the basis for renewed discussion between the two main parties in the dialogue process, whenever that is resumed. Neither of these two parties has opted for executive power sharing but the door may now be open for other forms of co-operation.