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Constitutional reform is ‘we business’

By Dr Marlene Attzs, Economist


About two decades ago, I found myself traipsing around Trinidad and Tobago as a notetaker for the Constitutional Reform Forum (CRF), a civil-society group led by persons such as the late Professor Dennis Pantin.

In those days, I didn’t quite appreciate how significant the Constitution was in defining the rules of engagement for governance and leadership in T&T.

Fast forward to 2024 and the issue of constitutional reform is making headlines again. My sense is that the population is not fully engaged in the conversations—some dismissing the current consultations as political mamaguy (on the road to the next general election), while others are just disengaged, blissfully clueless about the constitution and happy to continue in their zones of oblivion dismissing constitutional reform as “not my business”.

Simply put, constitutional reform is about making changes or revisions to a country’s constitution—that fundamental document that establishes the structure, powers, and limitations of our government, as well as the rights and liberties of all citizens of Trinidad and Tobago.

The Constitution also guides how our Parliament operates and how important appointments, such as a Commissioner of Police, are made. Bet you didn’t know that!

Last week I had the opportunity to moderate a session on constitutional reform hosted by the Department of Political Science at The University of the West Indies, St Augustine.

Among the information shared was the fact that this 2024 exercise to review the national Constitution is not the first such endeavour. Similar efforts were made in 1971 to 1974 under the Hugh Wooding Constitution Commission (which led to some changes in the Constitution in 1976); the Hyatali Commission on constitutional reform which reported in July 1990; the Manning Roundtable 2006–2010; and the Ramadhar Constitution Commission 2013–2014.

I recently had a read of the 1974 Report of the Constitution Commission headed by Sir Hugh Wooding. Other Commissioners included Michael De La Bastide, Reginald Dumas, J Hamilton Maurice, Solomon Lutchman and Selwyn Ryan. The Commission raised several poignant points in 1974, some of which are still very relevant today.

On the issue of voter participation, the 1974 Report noted, inter alia:

One indication that more and more people have become or are becoming disenchanted with existing political processes is the fact that fewer of those entitled to vote are registering…Fewer still have been exercising their franchise in either national or local elections… It may simply be a reflection of a dissatisfaction with the existing political establishment, and confusion and uncertainty about what options for meaningful change are open….

For general elections 2010, 2015 and 2020, the respective levels of voter turnout were 69.88 per cent, 66.80 per cent and 58.08 per cent. For the local government elections in 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019 and 2023, voter turnouts were 39.08 per cent, 43.60 per cent,  34.15 per cent, 34.71 per cent and 30.34 per cent, respectively.

Some of the 1974 Commissioners namely Dumas, Lutchman, Maurice, and Ryan, expressed reservations on some of the Report’s general recommendations. These reservations I embraced as indicative of the independence of thought and cross-fertilisation of ideas that the process, even among the Commission itself, allowed.

I thought Lutchman’s “reservations” very instructive. He suggested,

…A new constitution … cannot solve the ills of any society unless there is a fundamental change of attitudes in the people for whom it is designed and the persons who must operate it [my emphasis] … Nation-building requires pride and self-confidence, virtues that cannot be imposed but must come from within. No constitution can change people, but political experience can educate those same people as to the mistakes that they, very often at the prompting of egocentric leaders in moments of lunacy, have made. The people are always, in the long run, wiser than their leaders, and the democratic system should provide continuous and succeeding opportunities for the good sense of the people to correct past mistakes and prevail….

Wooding and his fellow Commissioners touched on many national pain points evident in 1974. Left to fester over decades, some of these pain points have now become strictures stifling our country’s growth and development.

From the political culture to the culture of nepotism to the role of the media in elevating the levels of national discourse–all are important.

The 1974 Report noted that there is “… no deeply entrenched tradition of political commitment and involvement on the part of the “better off” people in the society… The public still very largely believe that policy-making was a matter for “them” (the Government) and not for “us” (the people)…The few who made efforts to contribute to policy-making often found that their efforts were not seriously entertained….”

An informed and engaged population is a necessary condition to fully realise constitutional reform.

My fellow citizens of Trinidad and Tobago, constitutional reform is ‘we business.’  Let us educate ourselves and be the change we wish to see.

That’s just my point of view!