Independents shame Senate in controversial bill debate

Columnist Earl Best watched the end of the Constitution Amendment Bill debate in the Senate on television and was not amused:

The government of the day—and of the night, Section 34 has taught us—is sleeping the sleep of the just; confident that a substantial part of the battle for post-election 2015 power has been won.

The Constitution Amendment Bill is now almost law—“there are powers I have that you don’t know I have,” remember?—and the Constitution may soon be duly amended.

Without the support of at least one, for want of a better word, Independent, the People’s Partnership Government would not have been able to ram the Bill up the democracy’s throats.

Photo: Senator Rolph Balgobin. (Courtesy Winston Garth Murrell)
Photo: Independent Senator Rolph Balgobin.
(Courtesy Winston Garth Murrell)

In the event, they did enough to, for want of a better word, win the support of three.

But after watching last night’s Senate Committee stage of the debate on the Bill, I have to agree with BC Pires. In today’s Guardian, BC’s column is headlined, “Independent, my foot!” In it, he laments the fact that the style of formal dress we Trinbagonians have chosen for ourselves does not suit us.

I now declare the same to be true of the type of senate for which we have opted. It consists, we are told, of 15 government senators, six opposition and nine independents.

Independent, BC? Independents, my foot!

I have to say I was not pleased with some of what I saw on the TV. I don’t entirely approve of the Opposition’s unsurprising strategy; despite the clear signals sent on Tuesday, no less concerned with their own rather than the country’s post-election fate, Keith Rowley’s spokespeople opted to contribute nothing.

But given a choice between the silence of the PNM sheep and the preening of some of their colleagues on the third bench, I have no doubt which way I would go.

Unlike the deliberately mum PNMites, some people spotted their chance to make a splash and grabbed it with both hands. For me, the performance came close to being the intellectual equivalent of the behaviour now ritually displayed on the Queen’s Park Savannah stage during the annual Parade of the Bands.

When, for instance, well into the night, stand-in senator Fitzgerald Hinds suggested a provocative interpretation of the fact that the Prime Minister’s name appeared above an amendment proposed by someone else, the de facto author took strong objection to the inference and felt compelled to remind the House that he knew what Hinds meant because he was “a reasonably intelligent man.”

I would have used a different adjective.

Photo: PNM Senator Faris Al-Rawi.
Photo: PNM Senator Faris Al-Rawi.

And vice-president James Lambert’s pique was something to behold when the PNM’s Faris Al-Rawi insisted on getting an answer to his question about “the illogic” of Section 8.

But although I have long formed the impression that the only thing Al-Rawi is ignorant about is how to feign ignorance, he might just have been feigning ignorance. He asked to have the amendment proposed by Senator Dhanayshar Mahabir explained and got a very clear, very detailed response.

Armed with that crystal clear answer, which left no doubt that a candidate could be elected in the second ballot with less than 50 percent, he enquired whether the reason for proposing the original amendment to the Constitution was not precisely to ensure that no MP would be elected with the support of less than half of the votes in his constituency.

The Prime Minister, the Attorney General and the good senator did not splutter and stutter; for all the sense their attempted responses made, they might well have.

One suspects that the television producer was instructed not to let the world see the smirk that must have been painted onto Al-Rawi’s self-satisfied face.

And I feel sure we have not heard the end of that particular issue.

But back to the presiding officer. Mr Lambert, presiding in the absence of the unrecused President, seemed to me to need a little lesson in what precisely the role of the presiding officer is.

Not, mind you, as defined by Government but as defined by the Constitution.

Photo: Senate vice-president James Lambert. (Courtesy Jyoti Communications)
Photo: Senate vice-president James Lambert.
(Courtesy Jyoti Communications)

The question arises as to what really is his function? Is he an officer of the government or of the people?

It is a real question because the Constitution stipulates that, in the event of a tie, he must so cast his vote as to maintain the status quo. That seems to me to say that he is a mediator, an arbitrator, an arm not of the law but of Justice.

There was a point at which vice-president Lambert, reckless of the public demand for proper ventilation of all issues, declared almost testily that he had no intention of allowing the session to keep dealing with the same thing over and over.

“Even if,” his tone seemed to me to be saying, though he never quite put it into words, “some of you aren’t smart enough to understand what is being said.”

That reminded me of a 2012 Raffique Shah column, headlined “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow.” Here is the relevant excerpt:

Yesterday, veteran trade unionist James Lambert was an “irrevocable fool”. In spite of his years of service in the labour movement, he did not understand the fundamentals of collective bargaining.

Today, the glutton for punishment is forgiven by his abuser, elevated to the rank of senator, and is now described as someone with vast experience and knowledge, a man who can make a great contribution to governance. Today, it seems, the irrevocable has been revoked. Only in Trinidad and Tobago….

Methinks Mr Shah’s 2012 opinion needs no further comment in 2014.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
Photo: Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

I do, however, have one final comment on this issue. Given the current 15-6-9 composition, the Senate debate on the Bill took all of three days. So in my head I hear the voice of the late Lloyd Best calling long and loud for a “big macco senate.” Had he, dismissed by many as “impractical,” had his way, we would not have had, caeteris paribus, to hear the repeated complaints about the lack of consultation; a senate constituted in the way Best proposed would have given us all, prince or pauper, patrician or plebeian, pasha or peewat, a real voice.

But the session that ended yesterday might well still have been in progress at Christmas!

Do I hear someone saying thank God for small mercies? Not so fast. Before we start sending messages upstairs, consider that this measure, seemingly so sweet in the government’s mouth today, might well prove to be much less so when it hits the government’s behind tomorrow.

Right, Raffique? Right, Rolph? Right, Dhanayshar?

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About Earl Best

Earl Best
Earl Best taught cricket, French, football and Spanish at QRC for many years and has written consistently for the Tapia and the Trinidad and Tobago Review since the 1970's. He is also a former sports editor at the Trinidad Guardian and the Trinidad Express and is now a senior lecturer in Journalism at COSTAATT.

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    I agree if u listened to those three speeches they really said that it didnt make sense yet they agree to support it if the government agreed to their amendments, so tailor made right?shameless

  2. Mr. Tull, that is the very essence of what I’ve been saying all along. Once we have more than two choices, the chances of one choice gaining a 50%+ majority becomes mighty slim. The run-off, in my view, attempts to create an artificial majority victory where clearly a simple majority did not, cannot and will not exist.

  3. Even where like Daly wants to offer the benefit of the doubt. You can’t give benefit of the doubt when you offer me something to do a job when it clearly cannot

  4. The legislation does not cure the ill it says it is designed for. That is the suspicious thing. The red flag

  5. Given that a sizeable portion of the electorate does not vote, every government that has been elected is by definition a minority government.

  6. Indeed what is sweet in goat mouth go sour in de bambam … I hope that when people heap scorn on certain MPs and Senators legacies, that they are all comfortable with the stinging remakrs and well aware that the comments are well-deserved too.
    The Independent Senators are supposed to provide objectivity when tribalism makes views very subjective. In this matter, Balgobin et al failed us miserably. Also, Mr Lambet did nothing to shake the spectre of an ‘irrevocable fool’ off his persona. Whilst trying to chair the proceedings, the man looked most times completely out of his depth, floundering like a canal guabin suddenly displaced from its usual drain puddle.
    Probably the only thing that I can thank this PP gub’mint for in this sorry drama is for transforming the usually mundane Parliament Channel into must-see-TV over the past three weeks! Not even the budget debates have garnered such high viewership!

  7. Weren’t two of them were installed by the President in the middle of their predecessors term? Makes me wonder.

  8. Sachin, Please enlighten me. What exactly is it that I don’t agree with? What exactly have I condemned as “wrong”? Please. Do tell.
    Because as far I can make out, I have not attacked “the independents,” six of whom did vote against the bill but are nowhere mentioned in the article. That is, in fact, an oversight since those who played no part in the careful choreography that culminated in the unconvincing charade of the Committee Stage deserve our congratulations.

  9. Three independent dUNCe senators

  10. Just because you don’t agree with something doesn’t make it wrong. There are two sides of every coin. Yes, the bill may be self-serving to the incumbent, but it’s still a good bill.

    I personally support the bill, although I don’t believe too much in the power of recall and term limit for prime ministers; the latter serves no purpose in the Westminster styled system.

    As for attacking the independents, that’s just poor. If they voted against the bill would you then say that they were quasi-PNM senators?

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