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 ROWLEY ADDRESS TO THE NATION

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Honeylu
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PostSubject: ROWLEY ADDRESS TO THE NATION    Fri Aug 08, 2014 9:37 pm


Dr Keith Rowley


Fellow Citizens,



On the eve of the Tobago House of Assembly and the Local Government elections, this Government sought to pass through the Parliament, legislation which would have dramatically changed the landscape upon which we the voter had been preparing to register our vote.

With respect to Tobago, it introduced during the THA campaign, a hurriedly drafted bill, promising self-rule for the island. You would recall that the PNM campaign had to stop in Tobago while we returned to Trinidad to dismiss the bill, which was eventually allowed to lapse. In that instance the UNC was prepared to expose the Parliament of this country to a shameful election gimmick, which they knew would have the effect of damaging the country's territorial borders

With respect to the recent Local Government elections, we saw the hurried and disorderly introduction by the Government of proportional representation, quite literally in the dead of night, almost on the eve of the Election Day, the effect of which they did not fully understand, since it did not assist in their securing victory.

Both cases were naked, desperate and panicked attempts to move the goal post in order to gain a political advantage and reduce their margins of defeat. Fortunately, on both counts, the Government underestimated the decency and intelligence of the people of this country, and failed miserably in their attempt to distract the voter, and they were resoundingly rejected at the polls.

This being the case, and given the extreme gravity of the content of the Constitution Amendment Bill (2014) and the potential threat to good order, the People's National Movement would wish to take this opportunity to put before you the Citizens, our position on this Bill so that you may carefully appreciate what our Government proposes to introduce, which once again seeks to fundamentally change the political landscape, and severely restrict the individual's right to vote for the party and candidate of his or her choice, a freedom which we have enjoyed, unfettered since our independence by coercing tens of thousands of citizens to vote for a political party which may not have been their first choice. Citizens would in effect be forced to vote for candidates of one of the two major political parties or stay out of the election process. The PNM believes this development to be a naked and subversive attack on the principles of democracy. The bill will also change in a very dangerous way how a Government is formed, and has the potential to dramatically impair the peaceful transfer of power from government to government, the perils of which I will address later on.

We cannot be distracted by the superficial attraction of restricting a Prime Minister to two terms, and having a right of recall of members of the House of Representatives. I ask you to consider if a multiple term Prime Minister has ever been a problem on the national level. When did this issue become part of the burning public discourse before 2010? When would we have been better off not having a multiple term Prime Minister? Would we as a nation have actually been better served if Dr. Eric Williams had served only two terms? And who would be of that view. I am certain it would not be the voters who frequently refreshed his mandate for 25 years. Since independence, we have only had three occasions where Prime Ministers have served more than one term. As a matter of fact, during the last 30 years, one term Prime Ministers have been more the norm than an aberration. If the leadership of a particular individual is a problem, our democratic process has a proven and exercised track record for dealing with that and if leadership is not in issue, do we wish to find ourselves being forced to change? I remind you that in Tobago, Orville London secured an awesome victory in his fourth term. Is it that we should be denying all those citizens who chose to vote so overwhelmingly in favour of his leadership and service? Would Tobago really be better off had they limited him to two terms. The PNM sees in this proposed amendment the limiting of the voter's democratic right to select the leader of their choice for the period of their choice.

With respect to the recall of members of the House of Representatives, the threshold that is required to be met for the seat to be declared vacant is so onerous and the window so narrow that it is almost unachievable for it to have any effect, or be exercised. Firstly, the application for a recall petition must be supported by ten percent of all persons registered to vote in the constituency, and that application can only be made in the fourth year after the poll. Once the application is accepted by the Elections and Boundaries Commission, it would then issue a recall petition which would require the vote of two thirds of the registered voters in the constituency before the seat can be declared vacant. This would then trigger a bye-election. Even in a keenly contested General Ejection it would be rare, if at all possible, for two thirds of the registered voters in a constituency to come out and register their vote. This threshold that is required to be crossed reduces this proposal to a shallow gimmick. All that it would achieve is frequent election disruptions, instability and mostly no successful challenge.

These proposals are solutions looking for problems or flawed answers looking for questions. Platitudes that when considered would not improve the operations of government or deepening of our democracy. These proposals will not significantly improve quality of your life or the democracy which we enjoy.

Now on the issue of the supplementary elections or what is commonly referred to as a "run-off" poll, the Bill proposes to amend section 73 of the Constitution to prevent a candidate in a General Election from being elected as a member of the House of Representatives unless he obtains more the fifty percent of the votes cast. Where none of the candidates obtain the required fifty percent, a "run-off" poll must thereafter be held, fifteen days after the results having been declared, between the two candidates who earned the highest and second highest number of votes.

This therefore means that when you go out to vote on Election Day, and cast your vote for your candidate of choice, and your candidate gets the third highest number of votes, and no candidate in your constituency passes the 50% threshold, you would be required to go back to the Polls in a "run-off" poll. However, on this occasion, your candidate representing your party of choice is not on the ballot, having only obtained the third highest number of votes.

In those circumstances, you can either deny yourself your constitutional right to vote, or you are forced to vote for a candidate and a political party in respect to which you initially reposed little or no confidence. We in the People's National Movement see the potential effect of the run-off poll as being a retrograde and restrictive step, and I dare say a carefully intentioned choke on your freedom to choose the candidate and party of your choice at the final stage of selection.

Ladies and Gentlemen also contained in this Bill, is perhaps the most dangerous and potentially destabilizing legislative provision since the inception of our democracy, which has placed the orderly transfer of power and the efficient formation of the new government under serious threat. Under this proposed law, the Government could lose at the polls, but there are a number of supplementary or run off polls to be conducted, or quite possibly just one. According to the amendment, the incumbent government which is defeated, or on its way out, remains in office for at least fifteen (15) more days. I say at least because one needs to consider the likelihood of legal challenges. It therefore creates the distinct possibility that a government which has lost an election remains in control, if even for only fifteen (15) more days. This is the Government of Reshmi. This is the Government of Emailgate. This is the Government of Prisongate. This is the Government of an improperly declared State of Emergency that was supposed to be a limited State of Emergency. This is the Government of Section 34. This fifteen-day window is the proverbial recipe for chaos and is a suspension of our freedom to select and have a government promptly formed by our own determination.

In essence, the people of Trinidad and Tobago could very well wakeup after an election, and discover that the political party which has won the election with over 21 seats in which they have secured more than 50% of the vote, therefore requiring no run off, but there remains one seat which requires a run off, cannot assume office, while the party which has lost the government continues to hold power for 15 days in the first instance. That one seat will effectively postpone the lawful and swift formation of a new government, and the appointment of a new Prime Minister thereby requiring you to live in a country where a defeated and rejected untrustworthy government is holding on to power and all the institutions of state. How many contracts will they sign during this period? How many appointments will they hurriedly make? How many persons will they bribe in a last gasp to save themselves?

One wonders what is to happen to the country's business in the intervening period. What position should our technocrats and CEOs of State Enterprises take? Should they follow the instructions of the government currently in place, or await the arrival of the new government? The amendment effectively creates a situation where our country is in limbo. This is an undeclared transition period where in the hands of this cabal, any number could play.

We also believe that in a democracy that is suffering from election fatigue, these run offs will be a demotivating and ultimately a destabilizing factor. It is not at all farfetched that in these proposed run-offs, the voter turnout will in all likelihood be lowered. In this regard, I would like you to recall with me that we have had in the last four years, one general election, two local government elections, and two bye- elections. That may suggest that our democracy is indeed quite robust, but consider the prospect of up to 14 run-off elections following a General Election, as would have been the case in the year 2007, having regard to the election results of that year in the various constituencies. This would create a serious challenge to the voters and the entire electoral process for that matter and the costs associated with having to fight virtually a second General Election would be astronomical, placing greater emphasis and dangers on campaign financing.

We question whether this is really a strengthening of the mandate that will improve our democracy and deepen voter participation? We in the PNM consider that these provisions in fact alienate, disenfranchise, marginalise and disrupt rather than deepen our democracy - The last time we were offered a deepened democracy by this Government it was the proportional representation model. That has been abandoned and we now have the Government's admission that proportional representation has the propensity to result in political Instability and possible minority rule of the elite.

The proposed amendment also opens the door to misbehaviour. Let us assume that the supplementary poll could determine whether the incumbent government stays or goes, what do we expect to take place in that particular constituency. A scenario could arise where an Opposition party has secured the most amount of votes but has not crossed the 50% threshold in a seat which is needed to secure victory for the party at the polls. A supplementary poll is therefore required, it would not be extraordinary to foresee that the incumbent Government, who effectively lost the election, would now focus all of its resources, and I dare say, the resources of the State on that particular constituency to secure victory. Don't forget the behaviour of this Government as it led its high profile candidate into the St. Joseph bye-election. He was giving out construction contracts like sweetie, and the life of the Government was not at stake. Imagine what would happen if the Government's future is the prize. Some already envisage fears of an election being stolen with all the attendant social instability, which could follow from such perception.

I am also concerned that in instances where there has been wrongdoing when in office, this amendment effectively allows for the incumbent to utilise the fifteen days to destroy any evidence of its misdeeds.


Ladies and Gentlemen this amendment solely benefits a government that wishes to hold on to power in the face of defeat, and even after it has been defeated.

It is not surprising to the PNM, and many other informed voices, that the "run-off" voting was not a recommendation of any of the Constitution Reform Reports completed over the last 60 years from the Hugh Wooding Report, under Dr. Eric Williams to even the most recent report of Prakash Ramadhar. Reports are confirming that this far-reaching development formed no part of the discussions in the national consultations.

Nowhere in the Commonwealth where the Westminster style Government is practiced is there any precedent for "run-off" after the General Elections. Is this a case of fools rush in where angels fear to tread? On the contrary all over the Commonwealth in thriving Parliaments there are many MPs who won their seats in contrast where the winner received less than fifty per cent of the votes cast among a group of competing candidates

Therefore the question must arise where did this scheme come from? If the UNC sees this as a solution, then one must ask what was the problem? If the UNC puts this forward as the answer, what, pray tell, was the question, and who was asking that question.

We have to date been blessed with peaceful transitions of power despite the fact that our voting patterns unfortunately sometimes mirror racial lines. With this amendment, the likely scenario is that the two major parties are pitted against each other in circumstances where one party may have already won the election, but is being denied the opportunity to enter the corridors of power. Such a scenario could bring an end to our history of peaceful transitions of which we are so proud.

We in the PNM believe that there are long standing issues which have affected the quality of our lives and governance over many years and in that regard will be proposing for the consideration of the citizenry several areas of constitutional and legislative reform, which the PNM believes are practical and relevant proposals which will significantly contribute to the better administration of the Country.

Some of these proposals are:

1. Restructuring the architecture of Government to make Parliament supreme. That all parliamentarians whether on the government or opposition side are to be engaged in the people's business and service full time. This will ensure that those who we elect to serve are not distracted by other interests.

2. Increase the powers of the standing Parliamentary Committees to bodies with the power to subpoena, summon and investigate any aspect of the State apparatus in which the public has an interest.

3. Limiting the size of the Cabinet and legislating the parameters of Ministries to allow for more effective management and stability and discourage Prime Ministers from inventing and/or splintering ministries on a whim or fancy.

4. Limiting the number of Senators appointed to the Cabinet, thereby ensuring that the persons who the voters elect are in the main the persons running the nation's business.

5. Provide for the appointment of a deputy Prime Minister so that the important office of the Prime Minister ceases to become a "ten day" plaything.

6. Revisiting the powers of the President and providing for greater participation in the electoral process for that office to encompass a wider cross-section of the country's stakeholders in a significantly enlarged electoral college which will ensure that the President is not seen to be nor is a creature and extension of the Parliamentary majority. This expanded electoral college may include leaders of religious bodies, NGOs, Mayors and Chairmen of Municipal Corporations, Labour, the Universities, THA representatives etc.

7. Campaign finance reform which would introduce significant levels of transparency with measures being aimed at reducing and managing the influence of political donors on political parties and Governments.

8. Make the Caribbean Court of Justice the final Court of Appeal.

9. Provide for full self-government for Tobago.

10. Through effective devolution provide more executive autonomy to Municipal Corporations and enshrining Local Government within the Constitution.

These are but some of the areas where our experiences have shown us that we could address our Constitution in a manner to benefit the interest of the wider national community. What we are being offered instead is a cosmetic tinkering in an attempt to benefit the UNC ambitions to try and interfere with the smooth running of the electoral process in the upcoming General Elections in which they are destined to be defeated.

I would like to invite every citizen to rise up and join us with vigilance and conviction in protecting, again, our democracy. I invite every citizen, every group, every association, regardless of your age, gender, race, religion, political affiliation, geographic location or social standing to join us and band together in seeking to stop this open attack on your democratic rights and freedoms to select and vote for a party of your choosing and not be forced or fettered by law to vote for one that is not of your primary choosing. I invite you to reject the chaos and confusion that the runoff law would cause in our democracy, which could see more than a dozen "run-offs" being conducted after the first poll of a General Election. But most of all I invite you to look at the governments abusive track record of deception and insincerity and ultimately examine the insidious intent of this "runoff" law and reject it as the panicked and desperate actions of a party trying to hold on to power at the cost of removing your democratic freedom of choice.

Join us in St James on Tuesday 12th of August at 7pm where we will continue to discuss this and other important developments in our country.

Thank you for your attention. May God bless you and may God Bless our Nation.
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