WHATEVER happened to the idea of having fixed dates for general elections?
The Prime Minister’s vague remarks on Tuesday – that “elections will be held when they are due” – suggest it’s dead in the water.
That’s a shame. Fixed terms are needed now more than ever.
The sense of déjà vu triggered by Dr Rowley’s stance contrasts with the forward thinking of the campaign finance reform aspects of new legislation he announced mere weeks ago.
But whereas that bill can potentially overhaul how political parties are scrutinised and financed, the PM’s remarks suggest he’s happy to go the way of his predecessors, who all, to varying degrees, held on to the power of the back pocket.
It’s easy to see why. Information is power. A sitting PM can alert his or her own party ahead of time. And such inside information can be valuable, if not downright lucrative, for key players in the private sector.
But for those not in the loop there’s hell to pay. Uncertainty harms every sector that needs to plan.
Nothing better illustrates the potential for manipulation than the story of one former PM using the services of a trusted “spiritual adviser” to determine the election date. Patrick Manning’s successor, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, set up a constitutional reform commission which did recommend, after a process of public consultation, fixed dates for general elections.
But the ill-advised tabling of that reform in Parliament, alongside a highly controversial bill to raise salaries for judges and MPs, assured it was never passed. (Ironically, the salaries were later raised under the current administration).
The covid19 pandemic has underlined the glaring deficiencies of the current arrangements. Under our constitution, it is only during a war that the life of Parliament may exceed five years. The PM does have a power to recall Parliament, even after it has been dissolved, during “an emergency.” But this power cannot delay an election.
It’s worth noting that while the focus has been on election dates and campaign finance reform, attention must also be paid to the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC)’s own preparations for the first election to be held during a pandemic of this nature.
Its own internal review notwithstanding, it is worth asking: Will the EBC be able to introduce even greater restrictions at polling stations in time? Does it need a supplemented budget? And what of special voting? The matter of whether we can or should be allowed to vote by mail?
So much is already uncertain because of covid19. Need we add the election date to the mix? It would be useful for there to be very specific circumstances in which a term could, with mutual agreement, be cut short.
Such a measure could easily be spelled out in our very own Fixed-term Parliament Act. Such a law could tell everyone when the election bell is going to be rung, come hell or high water.