September 4, 2009
Bill an advance on 1979 Constitution


It is a real pity that after all the hard work of the last six years to prepare our people for a mature role in the historic task of shaping our own Constitution, partisan politics is trying to subsume this lasting monument.{{more}}

Based on the comments of the Leader of the Opposition, it is not the Constitution itself which will matter if the referendum is held in November, but rather where the political parties stand with the electorate. He does have a point, however, in his claim that such a juxtaposition is only natural, given the fact that general elections themselves may be held less than a year after the referendum.

Yet, there are two points which must be considered. First, one cannot recall any urging on the part of the Opposition for the constitutional review process to which it subscribed, to be advanced and completed in time for citizens not to confuse it with choices for a governing party. Indeed it is the very same Opposition which has refused to cooperate in advancing the process for the last three years. The second point is that it is the attitude of the politicians and political parties themselves towards the Constitution and Referendum which will determine whether we see them as being genuinely interested in the constitutional advancement of the country or whether the grab for power takes primacy. It may well be, as the Opposition Leader contends, that the Prime Minister may want to gauge his political fortunes according to the referendum’s outcome, but are the policies, strategies and tactics of the Opposition solely predicated on what the Prime Minister may or may not wish to do?

This obsession with partisan politics is precisely one of the fundamental weaknesses in our political system that the constitutional review process set out to tackle. Based on the proposals in the Constitution Bill 2009, the undertaking is far from complete. In fact the People’s Movement for Change (PMC) may have a point in bemoaning that rather than weaken the grip of partisan politics, the proposals seem to entrench further, to some extent, the role of the political party. But, by and large, in spite of some such shortcomings, the new constitutional proposals do begin to provide a framework for a more democratic, participatory approach to decision-making at the national level.

It is, therefore, simply not true to allege that these proposals do not represent an advance on the 1979 Constitution. Whatever one’s views on the Prime Minister, his motives, or suitability for office after the next elections, he is absolutely correct in pointing out that the current proposals not only do not limit or reverse any existing rights and freedoms enshrined in the present Constitution, but in fact in many ways they strengthen and extend those freedoms. It is difficult to understand the Opposition’s position when the very powers of the Opposition Leader/Minority Leader/or Alternative Leader (whatever the preference of name) are considerably extended under the Bill now up for consideration. And, there are limits which have been placed on powers previously granted to the Prime Minister.

These are undeniable facts. One can possibly argue that the proposals do not go far enough. One can debate whether the proposed size of the National Assembly is the optimum one, but one cannot ignore that the Bill makes provision for greater participation by women in the National Assembly; that it stipulates a requirement for parliamentarians to report periodically to constituents; that it removes the Prime Minister’s trump card to call elections at his/her whim and fancy; that freedom of the press is explicitly protected; that there is space, never before provided, though still limited, for civil society participation in Parliamentary debate; that restrictions on membership of parliament in at least two areas (ministers of religion and dual citizenship) have been lifted.

A perfect constitution with which everyone is 100 per cent happy will never happen in this life. Each person therefore should compare what we have now with what is being proposed and make his or her decision in a mature, honest and patriotic way. We should try not be swayed by the political party we support to vote “Yes” or “No” just because they say so. At the end of the exercise, whatever the outcome, the process must end in uplifting our people’s understanding of constitutional and political processes, not in hardening their positions for or against any party.