Trinidad Express / In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, after Macbeth murders Banquo, a rival for the throne, Banquo’s ghost appears at a feast. In response to Macbeth’s tremulous anxiety Lady Macbeth tells him that the ghost is merely “the painting of his fear”.
Following the passage of the Constitution (Amendment) Bill there are some hovering ghosts of the practices of good governance that the hasty legislative process killed. Some might also say that these ghosts are a painting of the apprehension that might understandably accompany confrontation with governments that are prone, as all ours have been, to victimise legitimate dissenters by commercial, political or police force. These apprehensions should be overcome. Hopefully their colleagues will not mind if the steely calm of the youthful senators Joy Abdul Mohan and Sharon Legall is mentioned in the dispatches relating to this period. Within 48 hours of the publication of the Constitution (Amendment) Bill on August 4, I commented that the proposed run-off provisions were the most troublesome. So they were and so they have remained, even after the passage of the bill in the Senate in a modified form. The passage and modification in the Senate was made possible by the votes of three Independent senators, Balgobin, Mahabir and Small. These three senators are under sustained attack. It remains my view that they were entitled to speak, propose amendments and to vote as each saw fit and, unless the contrary is exposed, the good faith of their actions should not be questioned. It does not follow that a defence of their apparent good faith should be interpreted to mean that that they have my agreement with the major modification, which the Government accepted. The major modification was the introduction of a threshold, which, if crossed, would make a candidate coming third in any constituency general election eligible to take part in the run-off election in that constituency. Senator Dhanayshar Mahabir was the architect of this modification. He had first proposed a target of 20 per cent of the votes cast in the general election. His presentation of this modification was cogent in the course of his speech in the debate. When asked to comment at that stage I expressed the hope that he would hang tough on his proposal and force the Government’s hand on it. At 20 per cent, third party candidates, based on known data, had fair prospects of reaching the run-off stage. Surprisingly and sadly at the committee stage of the bill Senator Mahabir conceded the higher threshold figure of 25 per cent almost immediately after Senator Balgobin countered with 30 per cent. At the same time Senator Mahabir added a requirement that the candidate coming third must also come within a five per cent margin of the votes obtained by the second-placed candidate. When asked, at that later stage of the process, to comment on the passage of the bill in the 25 per cent form I said clearly that I was sorry that Senator Mahabir had conceded so early to the higher threshold, that such a figure was too high and that I would have preferred that the senator had stuck out for the 20 per cent threshold. Frankly it was poor negotiation to concede even before the Government had responded to the 20 per cent proposal. Not surprisingly, responsible opinion is querying the reason for this ready concession beyond the senator’s reference to the percentage used in the recent local government legislation, not least of all because of the cogency of the speech in which it was presented. I do not and have not accepted that the run-off modification as it emerged is a good one. It is the stuff of hasty compromise. Unless the court strikes it down we are stuck with it. The run-off may nevertheless represent an interesting experiment in electoral reform for the reason that it sets a known target for third parties. If the none-of-the-above vote market is really growing is there a possibility of consolidating it and growing it further to 25 per cent or beyond 25 per cent in a run-off? The three agreeable Independent senators did not give themselves the power they have. The Constitution vested it in them. However there is an obligation on these senators, if pressed, to explain fully the manner in which they exercised their power and to respond with calm, not resentment, to any apparent inconsistencies in their positions. The ghost of the abandoned 20 per cent threshold cries the loudest. My previous expressions of regret of the early abandonment of that threshold are a matter of record. See for example the Trinidad Guardian, August 30, page A11. The spin doctors who have expressly put it about that those of us who understand the role of Independent senators are reconciled to its passage are dead wrong. The run-off ghosts will haunt them too. Previous Article Give change your best shot, Minister Howai
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