Our Readers' Opinions
November 13, 2009

by C.I.Martin 13.NOV.09

Sir Ellis Clarke is a very distinguished Trinidadian. His attainments are many; Island Scholar, Attorney General, Ambassador to the U.N. and the U.S., President of Trinidad and Tobago, and author of that country’s Constitution. Recently he gave a rare interview. Speaking specifically of constitutional reform and referenda, that most gracious of men declared that 90 per cent of his countrymen were not competent to talk about constitutional niceties such as whether or not to retain the right of appeal to the Privy Council.{{more}} He went on to stress that, in the circumstances, if you are going to have constitutional reform by referendum there has to be a great deal of informed public discussion.

I fully share Sir Ellis’s view. Not only that, but transferring his percentages to St. Vincent, I include myself in the 90 per cent who are not competent to discuss constitutional niceties. I do not know if the Queen should continue as our Head of State. I would not be surprised if she does not care one way or the other. The British Government has just established a Supreme Court which supercedes the House of Lords as the U.K.’s final Court of Appeal. The judges of this Court will continue to sit as the Privy Council to hear appeals from Commonwealth countries. The Court had hardly come into being when its President observed that appeals to the Privy Council from Commonwealth countries take up a huge amount of time. This would seem to be a diplomatic way of saying that their Lordships would not mind if the Commonwealth countries involved took their appeals elsewhere.

There is one aspect of constitutional reform that I fully comprehend. It is the proposal to change the voting procedure from a simple first-past-the-post system to a twin arrangement combining first-past-the-post and proportional representation. This change is critical for two reasons. Firstly, it would ensure that never again would a party get 30 per cent of the votes and no seat. Such a party would under the new system get at least 30 per cent of the seats awarded under proportional representation. It has long been recognised that the first-past-the-post system disenfranchises minorities. The Europeans and Japanese fully appreciate this and have had the twin system for years. In SVG, with its tiny electorate, the arguments for the twin system apply with even greater cogency. The second reason for supporting the twin system is that it will draw into politics competent persons who, while not capable of winning an individual consistency, would make it on the party list under the PR system.

We must not forget that whatever constitution we have, its efficacy ultimately depends upon the calibre of people doing the actual governance. We should, therefore, go for the system that seems to afford the opportunity of bringing persons of the highest calibre into the political arena. The late William Demas was at one time the Head of the Caribbean Development Bank. He once said to me that he could not understand why people should want to go into politics in the small islands. They were on a hiding to nothing. They would be confronted by a host of problems with very little resources to solve them. Moreover, the island being so small there was no place to hide from the constant pressures. I hastened to disabuse Mr. Demas but sometimes it appears as if many of our more promising young people agree with him and think politics is not worth the candle.

Incidentally, Sir Ellis Clarke, William Demas, the great Dr Eric Williams and many others were early Trinidad island scholars who returned to Trinidad and gave yeoman service in the public sector. With rare exceptions, all of our island scholars went abroad to study, mainly medicine, and never returned. Now that the Government is giving far more island scholarships in addition to the many other scholarships available, let us hope more would return. We should at least have in place an electoral system that would entice them into politics.

It is sometimes argued that referenda are better suited for dealing with a single issue rather than many-faceted ones like an entire constitution. Were I to choose the single most important issue in the forthcoming referendum it would be the voting system.