Clarify constitution reform exercise

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Prime Minister Dr Rowley – Photo by Angelo Marcelle

WHAT’S THE exact nature of the ongoing constitution reform exercise?

The question arises because the Government has sent too many confusing signals on this issue.

The Prime Minister’s call for people to contribute to the activity, delivered in the heat of a PNM public meeting last Friday, has done little to dispel uncertainty.

Back in January, at a media briefing at Whitehall, Dr Rowley announced the appointment of a seven-member “advisory committee.”

This committee was ostensibly appointed by Cabinet to “formulate the terms of reference” for “the promoting and convening of a national constitutional conference and consultation in June.”

That this committee’s activities were limited was suggested by the Whitehall announcement. Said the PM: “These are not people being asked to craft a constitution. They are simply being asked to facilitate and advance a national discourse on the subject and to be the sounding board, the post office.”

If the committee was meant to act simply as a clearing house for ideas, what was it meant to be “advisory” in relation to? The consultation process alone? Proposals to change the law? Both?

The committee – whose composition has since changed; one member was switched out for another after – does not have a public-facing website.

Yet it has already reportedly penned a letter to Dr Rowley.

“They are functioning, you will get your copy too,” the PNM leader told supporters on Friday. “I, as prime minister, I will put in my comments. My party will put in its comments.”

But is the committee not meant to advise the Cabinet? In replying to this letter, will Dr Rowley advise himself?

The UNC, the PNM leader also said, will have a chance to submit comments. He said he expected the national conversation to last six months.

From when, January or June?

Meanwhile, the PNM held internal consultations among its youth membership at Balisier House, Port of Spain, the day after Friday’s meeting.

Separately, last week the committee asked members of the public to e-mail “recommendations.” These, we were told, will be synthesised and compiled into a working document for a national constitution conference in June.

Is the committee simply taking a poll? Will submissions be recorded somewhere, weighed? Will contributors be invited to the conference? If so, who else is to attend this gathering? What is the fate of the committee post-June?

Constitutional reform is long overdue. But changing the supreme law of a country merits a far clearer process, and one insulated as much as possible from partisanship. Why a committee, and not a commission?

For the ongoing exercise to have true national reach, these questions should be clarified. Or else the Government risks further statements or moves on the process being greeted with cynicism.