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First, we must reform our minds

April 27, 2003
By Raffique Shah

THERE is consensus among most people, even those who do not have the remotest idea what it entails, that there is need for constitutional reform in Trinidad and Tobago. But few among the most vociferous on the issue will agree on exactly what reforms are required in the existing Constitution. Indeed, many of those who are parroting what has become the newest "buzz words" in this country's political lexicon have never seen a copy of the Constitution, far less read its contents. And among those who have studied it, no two will agree on exactly what is wrong with it, or what a new constitution ought to contain that would make it better than the existing one.

All of which leave me to conclude that Trinidadians and Tobagonians just love a bacchanal, especially one that is politically spicy. The most strident calls for constitutional reform have come from UNC leader Basdeo Panday. He and his opposition MPs have vowed not to support any legislation the PNM Government brings to Parliament, especially those that require the opposition's support, until the ruling party sets a timetable for such exercise. One might take their stance to the ultimate in absurdity. Should Venezuela invade Trinidad tomorrow, and the Government needs the support of the opposition to declare war to defend the country, Manning had better come good on constitutional reform before he brings the "war" resolution to Parliament!

And what changes does Mr Panday want made to the existing Constitution? I doubt he knows. The issue first surfaced when there was that 18-18 tie after the 2001 general election. Clearly, as sitting Prime Minister, he felt cheated when President Robinson, having been given a free hand by both PNM and UNC leaders to make the choice, chose Manning instead. So the numero uno item on Panday's reform agenda must be, firstly, to ensure that his name (or his duly anointed successor) be enshrined in the new constitution, assuring him (or her) a pivotal and permanent place in government.

For if we give it serious thought, what else could Panday want? Elections based on proportional representation (PR)? That sounds seductive to those who live in a society that has in-built divisions, be they along the lines of race or religion or ideology, and where every Tom, Dick and Harrilal wants a share of the political spoils. That proportional representation has failed to resolve the problems of badly fractured societies is of little consequence. The late Forbes Burnham got the British and US governments to impose it upon Guyana, just so that he could team up with Peter D'Aguiar and oust communist (and Indian) Cheddi Jagan from power.

That he achieved. But 30 years later, and after much blood was shed in internecine warfare, the in-built racial pendulum swung the way of Jagan's PPP. Now the Indians are in power, so one might argue that at least PR allows for power sharing with three-decade intervals!

But has PR made Guyana a more cohesive nation? Has it allowed either the PPP or the PNC to mobilise the vast resources of that country, to allow it to take its rightful place at the top of the Caricom economic ladder? The answer is a resounding "No!"

If anything, Guyana is a crippled country bedevilled by intractable problems that no kind of constitutional reform will solve. It's a society that's divided into "niggers" and "coolies", and the twain shall never meet-except to back Carl Hooper for captain of the West Indies cricket team, or cheer Chanderpaul as he wallops the Aussies. Is that what we want for Trinidad and Tobago?

But long before Panday fell back on this ruse in a bid to stay politically alive, several groups of intellectuals and political activists have also been calling for constitutional reform. And again, no two groups or individuals agree on what exactly they want.

Lloyd Best and most of his Tapia disciples still argue for a "macco" Senate that is representative of all interest groups in the society. The idea is appealing to those who believe that true democracy can only be realised if we relieve ourselves of the stranglehold on power the two traditional parties have had for however many years. But the mechanics of setting up such a disparate body may be self-defeating, in that there may never be agreement on just who will sit in that "macco" Senate.

Then there are those who would have us go the American way-elect an executive president directly, and he wields the combined powers of the President and the Prime Minister as obtain in our current system. The only regulatory body that could put the brake on the President's powers would be the elected members of the House and Senate. But that system, too, is badly flawed.

Lyndon Johnson, the man who succeeded John F Kennedy, waged a war in Vietnam that went well beyond his term in office, cost the US countless lives, destroyed almost an entire country-all of that without the approval of the House or Senate. Cleverly, all the presidents involved waged war without declaring war!

In effect, therefore, constitutional reform is nothing more than two words strung together to provide a platform for those who have nothing better to do, and to allow for an escape hatch for failed politicians. What we need to do is to reform the minds of the people of this country, especially those who are trapped in their race-cocoons, those who feel impotent if they do not have political power, and those who feel omnipotent because they have economic power.

If it's true that generations of the past-say from independence-exercised nothing more than tribal interest in politics, what can be said of today's young people? Without putting down those who will hold the destiny of this country in their hands in a few years' time, their priorities have little to do with constitutional reform or political power. The few who take part in active politics appear to be trapped, as their parents and grandparents were, in tribal "turfs". When you listen to the kind of mindless diatribe they spout, you'd wish that they'd stick to "partying" and not politics.

Constitutional reform may well have a place in helping to uplift this society. But reformation must start with the basic unit in society, the individual. Unless we instil good manners and basic human values in every citizen, including political leaders, no kind of "reformed" constitution will help us. If we fail to reform our own warped minds, how the hell do we expect to reform the Constitution, or indeed, the country?