Constitution talks in Port of Spain call for referendum

Chair of the National Advisory Committee on Constitutional Reform Barendra Sinanan. - File photo
Chair of the National Advisory Committee on Constitutional Reform Barendra Sinanan. - File photo

SEVERAL people urged that the holding of popular referenda on various issues be mandated by a new Trinidad and Tobago Constitution, speaking at an April 5 community meeting hosted by the National Advisory Committee on Constitutional Reform, which is chaired by former speaker Barendra Sinanan.

The meeting was held at Port of Spain City Hall.

Sinanan opened the meeting by lamenting the sparse turnout compared to previous community meetings held at Sangre Grande and Point Fortin. He said the events were being held to help his committee formulate terms of reference for national consultations on constitutional reform.

"Our main objective is to listen to what people have to say."

Committee member Dr Terrence Farrell said since the adoption of the 1976 Republican Constitution, this was the fifth time a process of constitutional reform had been attempted.

He viewed the 1972-74 Wooding Commission as having made some "excellent recommendations" but the late prime minister Dr Eric Williams had chosen not to act on these.

He said other attempts were made by a commission under Sir Isaac Hyatali, by Sir Ellis Clarke for former prime minister Patrick Manning, and by a committee headed by former legal affairs minister Prakash Ramadhar.

Farrell said a cynical view was the current exercise "was going nowhere," but in his view, the efforts over the past 50 years showed the society saw a need for constitutional reform. He argued that the problems people face daily could be traced back to the institutions of the Constitution.

Farrell said so far the committee had so far received 180 submissions from members of the public, well ahead of the 100 sent to the Wooding Commission.

Businessman/broadcaster Robert Amar lamented the evening's low attendance.

"Based on this attendance, it is clear the people are not interested."

He urged that a new constitution would institutionalise referenda, or otherwise the will of 41 elected MPs would dominate the will of the people.

Amar also called for proportional representation, not the current first-past-the-post electoral system.

Saying press freedom was important in this debate, he complained of lack of access to the Prime Minister's media conferences, alleging that only mainstream media were allowed.

Amar called for a policy for the aged, for food and water, and for accountability over public expenditure.

Businessman and former MP/trade minister Steven Cadiz warned of the shortfalls of referenda. He said the British people made "a major mistake" in their Brexit referendum, when the popular vote took the UK out of the European Union. Cadiz said a referendum does not have to be binding and did not have to operate through a simple majority.

Cadiz questioned the current first-past-the-post voting system, lamenting that in 2007 a political party (Congress of the People) had won 25 per cent of votes cast but had ended up with no seats in Parliament.

As to the ongoing series of community meetings, he said, "Look at the turnout here, today. People are not interested."

Cadiz lamented that in the past 15 elections, the victorious party had won on average just 38 per cent of votes cast.

"We are forming our governments with a minority."

He said if it is wished that people engage in election voting, they should be helped to get involved such as by making referenda a part of the Constitution.

Raul Bermudez said a referendum could be carried out as easily as asking to use a card with a magnetic strip at an ATM machine whose screen lets you choose how to express yourself on, say, ten different questions.

Mark Acres warned that constitutional reform should not be willy-nilly, as that could have dire consequences.

"Better a little caution,than a great regret."

Independent Senator Dr Paul Richards said people were wondering about the timing of the consultations.

On the low turnout, he said, "What we are seeing here is an apathy, a real sense of scepticism."

He, too, supported the use of referenda, but asked who would trigger these and what would stop them becoming politicised.

Whether the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) should replace the Privy Council could be put to a referendum, Richards said.

He supported fixed election dates, proportional representation and campaign-finance reform.

Richards viewed the composition of state boards as reflective of "a bastion of rewards."

He urged attention to how the Telecommunications Authority governed the digital space, including topics like the oversight of digital media, the use of AI (artificial intelligence) and child protection.

Rudolph Hanamji said legislation was not a panacea for all ills, even as he remarked that a constitution forms "the pillars for all other laws to align with."


"Constitution talks in Port of Spain call for referendum"

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