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Constitutional Reform in focus

The issue of constitutional reform is back at the forefront in Trinidad and Tobago following the appointment of the National Advisory Committee on Constitutional Reform by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.

Economist, banker, lawyer, author and one of the committee members, Dr Terrence Farrell, recently sat down to discuss the importance of this process with Neil Parsanlal, host of The Catholic News’ programme, Altos.

Explaining the role of a constitution, Dr Farrell stated, “The constitution is the country’s supreme law. It is set up to essentially distribute the power in the society among what are called the three branches of the State –the Executive, the Parliament, and the Judiciary.”

He emphasised that a constitution not only distributes power but also articulates the aspirations of a society. “It speaks to who we are, and it speaks to what we as a nation aspire to be,” he said.

The driving force behind the current reform efforts stems from the fact that the existing 1976 republican constitution heavily resembles the 1962 independence constitution, which was established by the British.

As Dr Farrell explained, “The 1976 republican constitution essentially moved us from having a governor general as head of state to the president as head of state. It made some other changes as well. It took some powers away from the prime minister and gave those powers to the president. But basically, that 1976 constitution looks very much like the 1962 independence constitution.”


Public consultations

To gather public input, the committee has been holding town hall meetings across the 14 regional corporations as well as in Tobago. The turnout has varied, with some meetings like the one in San Fernando seeing around 50 attendees, while others like Princes Town had only 17 people.

While the turnout at town hall meetings has been variable, Dr Farrell highlighted the quality of submissions received. “It’s not so much the numbers of people, it’s about the quality of the submissions that we are getting from them,” he said.

“The quality of the submissions, people are articulating what they see to be some of the things that they need,” he said. In Tobago East, for instance, around 25 attendees provided “excellent” feedback according to Dr Farrell.

Recurring themes have emerged from these town halls and the hundreds of email submissions received by the committee. Dr Farrell noted, “People really are looking for some significant changes. They are seeing that there is a need, for example, in respect of the presidency, that they would like to see a president that is put in that position in a different manner.”

Other common requests include calls for proportional representation, the right to recall representatives, fixed election dates, and the ability to hold referendums.

According to Dr Farrell, “All of that seems to me to suggest that what people are asking for is that they want to have a greater say in how the government is run…. people want the society to become really more democratic and they want to have a parliament that is more responsible, that is more responsive to their needs.”


Concerns about the Judiciary

A key area of concern raised by the public relates to the judiciary branch. According to Dr Farrell, “….people are expressing a concern about, for example, the delays in the judiciary. People are expressing a concern about the fact that you have people who are on remand for five, six, ten years, unable to get to a trial.”

While the public may not have specific solutions, Dr Farrell noted it is part of the committee’s role to examine potential resolutions, stating, “Part of our remit as a committee is to kind of look for what some of the solutions are to kind of resolve that particular issue.”

Another lingering issue is the ongoing debate about the Privy Council as Trinidad and Tobago’s apex court.


Use of technology

A key difference from previous constitutional reform efforts is the use of modern technology and social media. As Dr Farrell noted, “Unlike the Wooding Commission in 1972–1974, which had to go out to the population, there was no internet, there was no social media…Today we have all of that media available–the internet, email, and so on.”

The committee has capitalised on this by allowing emailed submissions. “We are using modern technology…people have been sending in their recommendations to us via email. We’ve received hundreds of email submissions from the population.”


A voice for the people

The next step for the committee is to produce a working document by the end of May, which will then be presented at a constituent assembly to gather further input from the population before making recommendations to Parliament.

As the process moves forward, Dr Farrell highlighted a symbolic issue with the current constitution’s preamble, noting that it is written in the third person, as if someone else is talking about the people of Trinidad and Tobago.

He contrasted this with the American constitution, which begins with “We the people,” emphasising the importance of a constitution reflecting the people themselves.

With the public’s desire for greater democratic participation and accountability at the forefront, the constitutional reform process promises to be a pivotal moment in shaping the future of Trinidad and Tobago.