THE Miscellaneous Provisions (Local Government Reform) Bill, 2019, had its first reading in Parliament on Friday. The bill was tabled in the name of the Minister of Rural Development and Local Government but was not on the order paper. It appeared on a supplemental order paper.
During Friday’s sitting, which was Private Members’ Day, there was no ministerial statement or policy brief issued in relation to the bill. A first reading is purely formal. Still, there is nothing preventing ministers from making statements on notice at any sitting, including statements explaining legislation pending fuller debate.
All of this is important to bear in mind when it comes to assessing the issues raised by this legislation and its potential role in the timing of the local government election.
Clause three of the bill proposes to vary the term of office of councillors from three years to four. This by itself seems simple enough. But section 11 (4A) of the Municipal Corporations Act stipulates that elections are to take place “within three months of the expiry of the term of office of the mayor, councillors, and aldermen comprising the council.” Therefore, a question arises as to whether in changing the tenure of the councillors the election due would have to follow suit and be pushed back.
Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar has asked the Government whether it intends to delay the poll. It’s a legitimate question. Whatever the position of the Government, it is clear election processes in this country remain at the mercy of the ruling party. This should not be the case.
It’s past time for a radical change. The Constitution and acts of Parliament govern the timing of general elections, Tobago House of Assembly elections and local government elections. In practice, local government elections have played second fiddle to general elections. It’s not hard to imagine why. No government wants a mid-term report card showing bad grades ahead of its big examination.
We call on Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley and Persad-Bissessar to jointly sponsor new legislation that would, once and for all, end uncertainties surrounding elections. It’s time for a fixed-term Parliament law. Saying elections will happen when they “are due” – a tack adopted by both the PNM and the UNC when in power – is not good enough since any government can, through Parliament, redefine the due date. It’s wrong for representation to be held hostage by political parties.
Meanwhile, the Elections and Boundaries Commission is long due for another review, similar to the one undertaken by Justice Lennox Deyalsingh.
Even if there is a need for flexible dates pending reform, at the very least governments should adopt a policy of maximum disclosure. They should not table legislation with potentially serious implications without being upfront. Full transparency should be carved into the law.