Two of the Constitution Bills that are to be taken to the referendum for Constitution reform failed to receive the full support of all of the Members of the Lower House of Parliament who were present at last week’s sitting.
The Bills for the Term of Office of the Prime Minister, and the Bill to ensure the appointment of the Leader of the Opposition at all times sparked some lengthy debates which resulted in some abstention when the vote was taken.
In presenting the first Bill, Legal Affairs Minister, Elvin Nimrod informed the House that he is commenting on the Bill without indicating which way he will vote whenever the referendum was held.
Minister Nimrod felt that if the people choose to elect and re-elect a Prime Minister for whatever length of time this is the truest form of democracy.
“It means that they are satisfied with the ‘good job’ that the Prime Minister is doing,” he told legislators.
“If the people of Grenada believe that their Prime Minister is leading the country in the right direction… they do have a right to decide to return their Prime Minister to Office,” he said.
According to the No.2 man in the New National Party (NNP) administration, the current Constitution does not set any limit on the length of time a Prime Minister can serve.
However, he said the proposed amendment is mandating that a sitting Prime Minister cannot serve for more than three consecutive terms.
Economic Development Minister, Oliver Joseph who abstained from voting felt that since Grenada follows the Westminster system of governance there is no need to introduce in the Constitution any term limits for the Prime Minister when the people already have the power to limit the term of a Prime Minister.
Minister Joseph said he does not understand the problem that the amendment in the Bill is trying to address.
“We have free and fair elections, and people have a right to choose who they want to be Prime Minister, so we have to be very careful that we are not depriving people of that right,” he added.
Both Joseph and Health Minister Nickolas Steele also abstained from voting for the Bill to ensure the appointment of the Leader of the Opposition at all times.
Due to the fact that the NNP swept February 19th 2013 poll winning all of 15 Parliamentary Seats, the Lower House is currently without an Opposition Leader.
Agriculture Minister Roland Bhola who piloted the Bill said should any political party once again command all 15 seats, the amendment is now seeking to have enshrined in the Constitution the appointment of a Leader of the Opposition coming from the other political party having the second most number of votes.
“My personal feelings about it, I will not declare, but I will say… that the people, when that day and time comes will determine what they do. Whether they will want to stick to the fact that they have voted unanimously for one party and that is enough, or whether they feel it is necessary to have an Opposition Leader being appointed, even though not voted for,” Minister Bhola said.
However, Minister Joseph said Grenada will be the only country in the Commonwealth in which there will be elected and selected people sitting in the same Chamber.
He stated it is the right of the people if the electorate in a fair and free election elect all 15 Members of one political party and that has to be respected.
“We have to ensure that the rights, and the freedom and the will of the people in a democracy take precedence over anything else,” he told Parliament.
In his contribution, Minister Steele said the present Constitution prescribes a route in which an individual gets to the House as a Representative.
He said the Constitution is not flawed when it speaks to representation in the House.
“The issue at hand is that certain political parties are flawed in their ability to get a mandate from the people,” he added.
“Parties that have been denied access to this House by the people are the ones that need to be changed, not the Constitution,” he said.
Member of Parliament for St. Patrick West, Anthony Boatswain who supported the amendment to the Bill indicated that there are situations where a party in opposition might have more popular votes than the party that eventually emerged as the winner of the elections.
“We must be prepared to open our minds to new models. Maybe what we are condemning now might be the more acceptable model in time to come, but yet we are afraid of change,” Minister Boatswain told his fellow Parliamentarians.
He said at the time the Constitution was written, it was never anticipated that there will be a situation where one political party will control the entire House.
“I believe if that was contemplated, maybe a different model would have been adopted,” he added.
Minister Boatswain expressed his disappointment over the level of debate that one party brings to the House.
“You come to Parliament, you debating, you don’t feel the sense to debate. Who you’re debating with? You are not exposed to alternative views, and no wonder why most people say well, “I’m not even coming to listen to you guys because you all saying the same thing”. They might prefer to go to the Senate where they get some opposing views, and nothing wrong with getting opposing views,” he said.
The Education Minister pointed out that having all 15 seats in the Lower House puts a strain on the democratic process where it makes it difficult in constituting a Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
During the debate, Member of Parliament for St. John, Alvin DaBreo felt that “opposition is healthy” as not every time the governing party could be correct, and it needs to hear opposing views on a particular subject or law.
Minister DaBreo informed the House that the Bill will ensure that at least the people who did not vote for the political party that won all of the seats will still “have a window” to create some form of opposition to represent their views.
“With this Bill what it would do, it will ensure that at least the country has the benefit of a healthy debate in Parliament, and that the people who did not vote for the particular party that form the government would still have an avenue to represent their views,” he said.
Meanwhile, the issue of fixed date for elections triggered differing views from the NNP-controlled House of Representatives.
Legal Affairs Minister Nimrod who presented the Bill indicated that under the current system the Prime Minister can call an election any time within a five-year period.
He stated that if the system is changed to a fixed date, the sitting Prime Minister will loose the advantage of having the option to set the date for General Elections.
In her contribution, Member of Parliament for South St. George, Alexandra Otway-Noel felt that although certain changes are needed in the Constitution, having a fixed date for General Elections is not one of the changes needed.
Otway-Noel said the objective of the parliamentary exercise is to give the people the opportunity “to have their say.”
“Although I am not necessarily in favour I will make my own decision come the time to vote,” she told colleague Parliamentarians.
Member of Parliament for St. Mark, Dr. Clarice Modeste-Curwen who supported the views of Otway-Noel felt that the Westminster system of governance has worked very well for the country.
According to Minister Modeste-Curwen, she does not believe that the incumbent government will have an advantage of facing the polls without having a fixed date for elections.
However, St. John MP, Alvin DaBreo expressed a different view, indicating that the present system gives an unfair advantage to the party in government.
DaBreo said the time for General Elections should provide a level playing field for all of the contesting political parties so that they can all properly plan for that important exercise.
He said the Bill also serves to protect the electorate by making provisions for a snap elections if there is disarray in the functioning of the government.
Back-Bencher Tobias Clement, the Member of Parliament for St. George North-east articulated that the Bill brings out justice and fairness in the electoral system.
Clement said everyone will love to play on a level playing field.
“I am not only speaking now because this (New National) Party is in government… I will love to keep it this way but… maybe I should be preparing maybe for when we are on the other side too because I do not believe the status quo of how things are will always remain this way. So if we put ourselves and our country in a position where everybody will be treated equally, just and fairly… I think this speaks to what we want to do,” he added.
A date is still to be announced by the Mitchell-led government for the holding of the referendum to effect constitutional changes.