Sunday, December 30, 2012

Guest column - Preparing for the constitutional debate - by Dr Hamid Ghany

Recent media reports suggest the Government is preparing to launch a major constitutional reform initiative in 2013. In preparation for this, it is useful to examine some of the salient issues that would confront such an exercise. 

One of the first things to be considered is whether or not the parliamentary system we currently have will be retained or whether a presidential system will be adopted.
Within the confines of this debate will lie the issue of hybridisation between the two. There are strong urges to adopt presidential techniques from the American system of government that involve term limits for the Prime Minister and fixed dates for elections to the Parliament.

There is a media and public desire in some areas to find ways to curb prime ministerial power overall and the use of term limits and alterations to the power of dissolution of Parliament have become quite fashionable. The American presidential model provides useful examples for this and the importation of these American techniques seem to have caught the public’s fancy.

The influence of the American presidential model has recently been demonstrated in the United Kingdom with the enactment of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (UK Statutes 2011 Chapter 14) which has substantially altered the power of dissolution.

By virtue of this act, the next general election will be held in the United Kingdom on May 7, 2015 and the polling day for each subsequent general election after that will be the first Thursday in the fifth calendar year after that election. Being a parliamentary system, there are provisions for motions of no confidence and early dissolution can be accomplished by a two-thirds majority vote of the House of Commons.

There are other situations contemplated by the Act which are required for importing this presidential technique into the parliamentary system of the United Kingdom which would need further analysis beyond the space available here. 

The issue of the term limits for the Prime Minister was laid in legislation before the Jamaican House of Representatives in 2010, but never went any further as their Parliament was dissolved last December and there was a change of government.
Once again, there was the need in that draft legislation to curtail the time elapsed for someone to hold the office of prime minister. A parliamentary term can be as short as one day to as long as five years based on when Parliament is dissolved.

The actual length of time any Prime Minister can stay in office would be as short as the period permitted by the Representation of the People Act, or as long as the period permitted by the Constitution for the holding of a general election after a dissolution. These two issues (fixed general election dates and term limits for the Prime Minister) formed part of the manifesto of the People’s Partnership when they campaigned during the general election of 2010.

It would be fair to assume that these issues will be addressed. The premise of these reforms would be to have them form part of a further hybridisation of the parliamentary model in the direction of presidentialism. The other reform mentioned in the People’s Partnership manifesto was the right of recall of elected MPs.

That would require more delicate handling as the continuation of a parliamentary system will mean the executive could have the support that it enjoys by virtue of its majority altered one way or another, if MPs can be removed from office for whatever reasons are specified.

This would change the political culture substantially as it would allow any opposition the opportunity to challenge a government by seeking to remove MPs who narrowly won their seats through the right of recall which would force a bye election, while Government forces may also seek to remove some Opposition MPs who may also have won their seats by narrow majorities.

Of course, one cannot rule out attempts from within political parties to make changes to their own slates of MPs by engineering recalls of people whom they would no longer want as MPs and whose seats are safe enough to survive a recall election with a new candidate.

All of these scenarios may have absolutely nothing to do with performance of the MP, but rather with political expediency which can keep the electorate busy during the life of a fixedterm Parliament in which the Prime Minister may have a term limit.

Underlying all of this is the method by which these MPs will be elected, because if the proposal for proportional representation is embraced, then all of the above will become moot as the concept of the geographicallydefined constituency will be abolished.

The parties will then gain greater control over their representatives who can be removed much easier because of the existence of a party list from which new names can be drawn to replace others who may be disciplined, die or resign. 

Will proportional representation be used for the House of Representatives and the Senate or just the Senate alone? That will be examined in a subsequent column.

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Jai & Sero

Jai & Sero

Our family at home in Toronto 2008

Our family at home in Toronto 2008
Amit, Heather, Fuzz, Aj, Jiv, Shiva, Rampa, Sero, Jai