Occasional Essays
July 27, 2007

Of Austria, the Constitution and Gems

When I first went to live in Austria I was struck by several aspects of the society. The first was the orderliness and cleanliness of the country. Litter was not dropped all over the street. Lawnmowers with petrol engines were not used on Sundays. Men did not pee any and everywhere. Can you imagine anyone urinating all around Vienna’s stately buildings?{{more}} Here men urinate around the Old Library to such an extent that the downstairs windows have to be kept closed so that the people inside can avoid the stench. The fire brigade has to hose down the place before a major event can be held there.

Another feature that caught my attention was the major role tourism and construction played in the economy of Austria. Because the country has numerous ski-slopes and is surrounded by many highly industrialized countries, lots of tourists come in winter. Tourists also come in summer because of the country’s history and culture. Indeed visitors often have to book years in advance in order to obtain tickets for certain events.

So when I noted that our banana industry was in decline I did not despair. Noting what happens in Austria and in several of our neighbouring islands, the direction in which we had to go was quite clear. More emphasis would have to be put on the tourism and construction industries. I wrote to this effect and was then subjected to such a vicious and personal attack that all the newspapers except one refused to publish the article under reference. Now, however, the Minister of Agriculture, The Chairman and the General Manager of St. Vincent Banana Growers Association are openly talking of the drastic decline in the banana industry. The Prime Ministers of Barbados and of St. Vincent and the Grenadines more circumspectly speak of the end of the post colonial economy.

The third and perhaps, the most important factor that impressed itself on my mind was the Austrian Electoral System. There they use a combination of the First-Past-The-Post System and Proportional Representation. The case for Proportional Representation has always been that the First-Past-The-Post effectively disenfranchises those who did not vote for the winners.

In small countries the problem can become almost grotesque. Austria with about 7 million people is considered a small country by European standards. St. Vincent and the Grenadines has slightly more than 100,000. Indeed the starkest case of disenfranchisement I have ever observed was in St. Vincent and the Grenadines in 1989. Then the Labour Party got 33 percent of the vote but not a single seat!!!

The Labour Party would have felt it, but less harshly, at other elections as would have the NDP after the 2001 campaign. Ever since the 1989 elections I have been writing articles advocating the introduction of a system which combines First-Past-The-Post and Proportional Representation. The last such article appeared in the Searchlight of October 23, 1998. I am therefore delighted to see that both sides in the House of Parliament, as well as many members of the public have reached the same conclusion. Unfortunately, the Constitutional Review Commission did not.

There are many varieties of Proportional Representation. The one probably best suited to St. Vincent and the Grenadines should have several features. Firstly, all members, whether chosen by the First-Past-The-Post system or Proportional Representation, will be elected members. Indeed the winning party cannot be declared until the count has been completed under both systems. Before the election the candidates for the single member constituencies as well as the slate of candidates put up by each party for Proportional Representation must be declared. Each elector will have one vote, which will count for the candidate as well as for the party. The total number of votes cast divided by the number of PR seats will indicate how many PR seats the contesting parties are entitled to. It may be necessary to exclude parties getting below a certain percentage of the total votes cast from the PR count.

I am not claiming that the PR system will solve all our problems. Sir Winston Churchill disposed of this issue decades ago. He pointed out that no one ever claimed that democracy was a perfect form of government, it is simply the least bad of all the systems. What we have to do is to select our system and hone it as best as we can to suit our needs.

In concluding, I want to express my appreciation for the visit by Gems and Friends. I wholeheartedly endorse the views expressed in Dr Ann Eustace’s analytical letter. (Searchlight July 20, 2007). Some have humorously described the group as ‘The Old Ladies”, I am not in that. Many of ‘Gems and Friends’ are people of my own generation. I went to Kingstown Methodist School with Syl Mc Intosh, to the Biabou Methodist with Elsa Morgan, taught Eileen Fraser, and of course, was in the sixth form, with Monica Sandy.