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PETER WICKHAM: Rowley’s reforms


Peter Wickham, [email protected]

PETER WICKHAM: Rowley’s reforms

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ONE CANNOT HELP but be intrigued as the 2015 political campaign in Trinidad and Tobago evolves, with polls continuing to demonstrate that contest could go either way.

The most recent national reading of public opinion conducted by Solution by Simulation suggested that the People’s National Party (PNM) has the lead in terms of party support, while Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar is the preferred leader.

This poll result provides some comfort to the PNM; however, Opposition Leader Keith Rowley clearly has some work to do if he is to ensure that he can at least match the popularity of his party.

Against this background, an apparent strategy has emerged that is worthy of consideration, especially as it departs from Rowley’s previous strategy, which appeared to exploit Persad-Bissessar’s weaknesses.

This strategy was similar to that which Persad-Bissessar herself employed by bringing the historic vote of no confidence against Rowley.

Rowley has taken aim at the core of our system of government, which many among us believe has outlived its usefulness. We have elected representatives who are part-time when they act as government ministers, but are ultimately still answerable only to their constituents for any shortcomings in government.

Moreover, our constitutions presume that Parliament can provide scrutiny of the executive, but the fact that the executive is drawn largely from Parliament, where the party whip is dominant, ensures that Parliament is rarely in a position to provide such scrutiny.

Arguably, it is for these reasons that constituents complain bitterly about being left unrepresented and parliamentarians and their committees cannot effectively provide oversight for the executive arm of government.

In response to this problem, Dr Rowley has suggested fundamental reforms to the governance model, which would result in MPs being full-time representatives looking after the interest of their constituents, to whom they ultimately answer.

The second and equally important pillar of his proposal would restrict the size of the Cabinet constitutionally and as a consequence reduce the need to depend so heavily on the rank and file MPs to fill ministerial posts.

Presumably, Rowley would depend more heavily on appointed senators who are 100 per cent committed to their work as ministers, answerable to elected parliamentarians and possess the most attractive quality of being politically expendable. If one combines these two pillars, it becomes clear that Rowley envisages a Parliament that would work in the interest of the people who elected it and supervise the work of ministers that are selected and can easily be replaced.

The Rowley formula logically presumes that ministers who understand that their job is dependent on the maintenance of the highest standards of integrity and who understand that they are answerable to elected MPs who owe them no allegiance would be less likely to “behave badly”.

This type of proposal would naturally appeal to thinking voters because it reflects the type of fundamental change that would address long-standing challenges in the politics of Trinidad and Tobago and could therefore appeal to swing voters.

The Barbados experience with this type of approach, however, raises the red flag since our 2013 campaign was also one in which the Opposition came forward with a mature proposal that sought to tackle a problem that was equally persistent. In our case, the Government responded in the traditional way, notwithstanding the obvious illogic, and the outcome of the election demonstrated the extent to which we as a population were not ready for an appeal to our intellect.

In the Trinbago case, Persad-Bissessar has already gone after the more salacious aspect of Rowley’s proposal, which is the fact that full-time MPs will have to be paid full-time salaries, while deliberately ignoring the more endearing and developmental features of the proposal. It will therefore be interesting to see if the Trinbago public is more interested in a mature political conversation than we were in Barbados.

Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES). Email: [email protected]

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