The bill was passed with 23 votes in favour, 14 against and one abstention. Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Dookeran and Minister of Public Administration Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan voted against, while their Congress of the People (COP) colleague, Minister of National Diversity, Rodger Samuel, abstained.
Newsday asked Ramlogan if the Cabinet trio’s lack of support for the bill should pushed the Government to put the bill on hold such as sending it to a joint select committee (JSC)?
“Well I think the Prime Minister’s leadership in this matter was outstanding. Having relieved all Cabinet Ministers and MPs from the collective responsibility principle which applies in the Westminister system of parliamentary democracy, people were free to exercise a conscience vote,” Ramlogan replied. “When you compare this with the fact that we’ve come from a history where Dr Eric Williams had asked people to sign an undated letter of resignation as a precondition for running as an MP under the People’s National Movement banner, or ‘not a damn dog bark’, to a situation where the Prime Minister who says to her MPs, ‘I relieve you of collective Cabinet responsibility. Vote according to your conscience’, I think it is a very healthy sign for our democracy. It is a sign of political maturity on the part of the leadership of Prime Minister Bissessar and we welcome that healthy dynamic for our young democracy.”
Newsday asked if it was genuinely a “conscience vote” if Government MPs had to decide if to defy a known governmental bill? The AG replied, “This was the first time since Independence, half a century has elapsed, that we are about to embark on electoral constitutional reform. It was therefore a significant matter that warranted the kind of leadership that we saw from the Prime Minister, and I support her decision fully. It has been a breath of fresh air in the debate, and for those who followed the debate it was a very educational and informative one...”.
Was Persad-Bissessar’s gesture to allow a free vote really so great, given that Dookeran had made his objections to the bill beforehand?
“We often are able to share our views in the confines of the Cabinet and elsewhere. The Prime Minister encourages healthy, respectful debate and discussion and open and genuine and meaningful dialogue on all issues.” He said it’s common for different Ministers to have different views but to then agree to a Cabinet consensus. “In a matter like this (Constitution Bill) the Prime Minister was not obliged to relieve persons of the collective responsibility (but) in any event she thought it was a matter that was sufficiently important and significant to the country to do so, and she did so,” the AG said.
“I think what we should be asking is why didn’t Dr Rowley do a similar thing, to say as Leader of the Opposition, that ‘Look, this is the first time we are having constitutional electoral reform being debated in the Parliament, and I relieve each and every single one of my Members of Parliament on the Opposition bench of the principle of collective responsibility and I instruct the Opposition Chief Whip, Marlene Mc Donald to withdraw the whip.”
He said the Government was very happy that the PM allowed healthy debate . “That kind of dialogue is the grease that allows the wheels of democracy to turn.” Newsday asked why the bill had not gone to a JSC, but the AG said he could not reply as he had to rush off to another engagement.