Kamla Persad-Bissessar calls for constitutional reform for presidential election process

Do we want a President who is a creature of the executive and who has no executive power? One of several penetrating questions coming from Parliamentarian Kamla Persad-Bissessar, a key speaker at the Fourth Allan Harris Conference, hosted by the Trinidad and Tobago Institute of the West Indies (TTIWI). “The Constitution says that [the President] has executive authority in the country but when you read Section 75 of the constitution, it tells us there’s a cabinet responsible for the general direction and control of government, accountable to the Parliament. So who really has control of the country?” asked the former Education Minister two days ago in the second of the conference’s three sessions. “The executive authority rests in Parliament and…it really rests in Prime Ministerial dictatorship.” The Siparia MP also spoke frankly about the need for constitutional change to bring reform to the current presidential election process, which currently provides for the President to be elected by the simple majority of an electoral college comprised of all the members of the Senate and of the House of Representatives, as well as the House Speaker. “The office of the President is held out to be independent, but what is the reality?…In both Houses, the majority falls within the ambit of the ruling party…So to say that the office of the President is independent is to fool ourselves. The office of the President is not necessarily independent because of the constitutional arrangement.” Persad-Bissessar suggested that the President be elected, not by a simple majority but by a two-thirds or a three-fourths majority, in order to ensure real consensus. She went on to challenge the constitutional arrangements governing the responsibilities of Parliament, the election process for the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the powers of the President of the Senate and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Speaking in the same session, entitled “What form of government do we wish for Trinidad and Tobago? What is possible to achieve?” Sheilah Solomon took a different approach. “I believe that after centuries of top-down rule in many forms…I think we need to focus fundamentally to build the constitution from a bottom-up approach to make local government equitable,” said Solomon, the founder of the Trinidad and Tobago Citizen’s Alliance Network (TTCAN!), one of the many private interest groups represented in the conference room in the Centre of Excellence, Tacarigua. Also present at the all-day affair were a number of representatives of religious groups, trade unions, political figures and members of the academic community. TTIWI Director Lloyd Best rounded off the second session by answering the second of the two questions posed in its title. “The thing that we can do is to make some changes in the structure of the State… Let us make the House of Representatives which we have now the House of Government, which it is. Everything is executive in the House of Representatives that we have now. Leave it that way. And let the Prime Minister be in charge of everything. And let everyone in [Parliament] be his aide, and elect him on that basis…Elect one man, the Prime Minister. And you get rid of the President of the kind that we have now.”

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