Friday, August 29, 2014


So,  continuing where I left off yesterday, let's start with the first Objection:

This is undemocratic because it is unfair to the candidate that came first.
This argument shows a fundamental misconception of what an election "race" is all about. In fact, to call it a "race" is somewhat of a misnomer. An election is really about choices. Who are we going to choose to represent us for the next five years? It isn't a race like a bicycle or swimming race where the winner is the guy or gal who comes in first ahead of the pack. It is about who will represent the people of the particular constituency. This proposal (now law) effectively gives the electorate the chance to choose more democratically. For example, you have A, B and C to choose between. A and B get 45 and 40 percent of the vote respectively. C ends up with a paltry 15 percent. So, A and B go to a run-off. The voter now can decide 'well, I preferred C, but if I have to choose only between the first two I will choose B over A' or vice versa. What is undemocratic about that? If A wants to hold on to his lead then he will have to ensure that he gets C's supporters to vote for him. What is wrong with that?

It's unfair to third Parties because they will be automatically excluded in the run off election.
Sounds good, doesn't it? I mean, shouldn't everybody get an equal "bite at the cherry"? But on a closer examination one realizes that it really doesn't stand up to the light of day. Before I answer this let me just say that last night the Senate changed this particular provision by saying that if a candidate gets at least 25 percent of the popular vote, he/she can be in the run-off.  Now, back to the question: the answer is that everybody is getting an equal "bite at the cherry". But third Parties are now going to have to be more than just spoilers in the game. For example, in 2001 Mr. Ramesh Maharajh formed a Party which effectively caused Mr. Panday's UNC to lose that 18/18 tie. Mr. Maharajh's candidate in that election in Tunapuna polled a few hundred votes and the PNM candidate was able to squeak in with a very bare majority. Most political observers concede that had it not been for that third Party candidacy that the seat would have gone to the UNC instead of the PNM. And to add insult to injury that third Party candidate lost his deposit! Put another way, third Parties now are going to have to step up to the plate with real support or get out of the way. What could be wrong with that? How is this unfair to somebody who, at the end of the day, clearly doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell of surviving and winning?

In fact, this proposal can effectively give third Parties greater influence in that the two major Parties will (if they are smart) have to be very cognizant of a third Party's policies and proposals because if there is a run-off the leadership of the particular third Party can urge its supporters to support either Party A or Party B as the case may be. In other words, the leadership of all the Parties (both major as well as minor) are going to have to be more careful in that they are going to have to articulate their policies more clearly, and the subliminal messages from the UNC and the PNM (vote for us because we are Indian/African) are going to have to become even more subliminal if the ONR/NAR/COP supporters (who still exist ... they just have no "home" at the moment) are going to be attracted to one side or the other is going to get their votes. (These voters are by and large not motivated by racial voting and do in fact cause the outcome in several marginal constituencies).

There is the very good chance that in a run-off not everybody who voted in the first round will vote in the second round; in other words, there is a very good chance that the eventual winner will get less than 50 percent of the votes cast in the first round.
Well, duh!!! Of course that can happen! But this argument ignores the fact that voting is not compulsory. It is a right that is available to every adult citizen. A citizen can choose to exercise or not exercise his right. But he can't complain about any result if he chooses not to exercise his right to vote. What do you expect will happen if you don't vote? It is either that the principle that every single vote is important is a good principle and is correct, or it's not! So, somebody who voted in round one can say "I ain't votin' 'cause I vex' " or he goes out to vote on the basis of the choice that is now available. But don't complain! And the result will be determined by the people who do exercise their franchise! Full stop! Punto finale! Indeed, less than 50 percent of the electorate can refuse to turn out in the first round! You can "play" the numbers game till the cows come home, but the principle that an elected representative should at least have 50 percent of the votes of those who have bothered to turn out is a good one.

That there should have been public consultation before such an important and fundamental provision was brought in; there hasn't been enough time to consider it carefully.
Again, this sounds good at first blush. We even had one of the Commissioners appointed to the Constitution Commission (Ms. Merle Hodge) saying that this was never considered or discussed. To which I would reply, well, first of all, how much time do you think you will need? What are your concerns? The ones that I have articulated? Or are there others? If so, what exactly, and in one sentence for each(because if you can't define it in one sentence you can't define it at all), can you define the other concerns?
Secondly, if this wasn't discussed at all, then how come it was in the addendum that was submitted by the Constitution Commission that Ms. Hodge signed that was submitted on 18th July, 2014? Why did Ms. Hodge sign the addendum? Why didn't she submit a minority report? Did she read what she was signing? Did she even understand it? Or did she only understand it when the PNM began objecting to it? And if it was in the addendum, surely this suggests that it was discussed at some time by the Commission?

That a run-off could leave the country in a political limbo for two weeks, which is an unacceptably long time.
To which the short answer is "bull piffle', Good grief! Don't those who are putting this up as an argument understand the Constitution? It is  unarguable that the results of any election  should be determined as quickly as possible. But even in the best regulated democracies there can be delays. For example, in 2001 then President Robinson took two long weeks to resolve the 18-18 tie (which he eventually did wrongly and unconstitutionally ... but that is another story). And nobody complained then! Why? Because Robinson eventually decided in favour of Manning?  Or this wasn't a concern? In the great United States in the presidential election of 2002 it took more than a month before the Supreme Court finally ruled in favour of George Bush (and, yes, I am very aware that the American Constitution is different from ours). In our Constitution there are provisions that keep a Prime Minister in office even after an election until the President appoints a new one. Now, tell me: what can a Prime Minister do who is awaiting a run-off in a particular constituency in the 15 days between the election and the run-off? Do you really think that he/she would be so reckless as to try and empty the Treasury in that time believing that he/she will eventually lose? Do you not think that any Prime Minister coming in after such a situation will not look to hang his/her predecessor as soon as he/she takes office? Come on!  Mr. Panday has been accused of all sorts of crimes and other misdeeds, but not even his worst detractors accused him of taking advantage of that 2001 18-18 delay to do any corrupt act!

The real reason
No. The real reason, which neither side has articulated but it remains like the proverbial elephant in the room, is because the PNM has quite rightly concluded that this run-off provision is a dagger aimed at their electoral heart. The evidence tends to suggest that the support for the UNC tends to split while the support for the PNM tends to stay solid. Put another way, the combined votes of those opposed to the PNM have frequently exceeded those cast for the PNM.  In other words, a majority of third Party voters are non-African or better educated and do not vote according to ethnicity and would prefer to vote for the UNC rather than the PNM where the only choice is between the two Parties. Where there is a third (or fourth) choice the UNC support will sooner hive off in favour of a third Party before the PNM's support does. Put another way, the PNM believes that they will lose elections more often than they will win when there is a run-off ... unless they bring about fundamental changes inside the Party .... which they clearly don't want to do.  And that, my friends, is really what it is all about!!

Thursday, August 28, 2014


I had not intended to write at all about the latest 'brouhaha' making the political rounds ... the contraversial run-off proposals currently being debated in the Senate. Frankly, I considered the arguments against the proposals a bunch of "bull piffle" and accordingly had decided to obey the injuction of Mark Twain who said something to the effect that one should never get into an argument with a fool; he will only drag you down to his level and then beat you with his experience.

But such confusion has been created by the "piffle" of the Bills' detractors that I have been besieged with requests to try and expain it. Indeed, the requests are probably best summed up by one reader who wrote me an email this morning which is typical of the requests that I have been recieving. He said:

          "Robin, could somebody who is above average intelligence (like yourself), relatively impartial
           (lol- like yourself),describe the pros and cons of the proposed Constitutional Amendment Bill?
           I realise that I probably do not fall into either category, but do not understand the
           ramifications. Please enlighten us all."

So hear goes: first of all, there is the criticism that the amendments require a special majority ... which is a two thirds majority ... in both Houses of Parliament. This is simply not true. A simple majority (one vote) can amend any part of the Constitution that does not affect the fundamental rights of the citizenry (which rights are set out in Section 4 of the Constitution and include things like freedom of the Press and the right to join political parties and to express political views, etc.). The proposed amendments do not infringe any of our fundamental rights. A simple majority is really all that is required to pass the Bill.

There are three things that the Bill proposes to change: the first is a proposal that no Prime Minister should serve a total of more than two full terms. Nobody seems to have a problem with this so I 'll leave it alone. In any case, it is fairly clear.

The second proposal is really "a crock" and is effectively not enforcable. It proposes that in any time after the third year of his election an MP can be removed if more than 50 percent of the registered voters in a constituency petition for his withdrawal. The petition must be presented before the last year of a Parliamentary term. Now, the truth is that it will in practise be virtually impossible to get 50 percent of the registered electors in any constituency to sign such a petition. Put another way, it sounds good in theory but it simply will never work!

The third proposal is where the critics have been getting their "knickers in a twist" (as my English friends would say). The proposal is that if there are more than two candidates in any constituency and no one gets at least 50 percent of all of the votes cast, then there shall be a run off election two weeks later between the top two candidates only.

Critics of this proposal say that :
- this is undemocratic because it is unfair to the candidate that came first;
- it is unfair to third parties because they will be automatically excluded in the run off election;
- there is the very good chance that in a run off not everybody who voted the first time around will vote in the second round; therefore the possibilty exists that the eventual winner will get less than 50 percent of the votes cast in the first round;
- that there should have been public consultation before such an important and fundamental
  provision was brought in; there hasn't been enough time to consider it carefully;
- one of the members of the Constitution Commission has been reported as saying that there was no
   discussion on this in the Commission;
-  that a run-off could leave the government of the country in a political limbo for two weeks, which
   is an unacceptably long time.

And that, in a nutshell, are the criticisms. And the answers? Let's take them one by one ... tomorrow!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Quite near to my home in Maraval (but fortunately not quite close enough to affect me directly) a Roman Catholic private school for girls is about to be opened in Long Circular Road. The school apparently is slated to have 200 students and either the entrance or the exit to the school (I'm not sure which) will be on Champs Elysees, a narrow road that exits onto the main road (Long Circular). Most understandably, the residents of Champs Elysees are very, very upset. The traffic that this new school will generate on mornings and on afternoons will be horrendous. If there are going to be 200 (upper class) students in attendance (and the fees that will be charged ensure that this will be the case) then it is reasonable to presume that at least 150 plus cars will be at the school every morning and every afternoon. It will be extraordinary if there are no traffic jams on Long Circular road(which has become a major artery in the road system in and out of Maraval) at least twice a day, and as for Champs Elysees, which was designed as a very quiet side road, it will be virtually impossible for the residents to go in and out of their homes without difficullty during times of pick up, drop off and special school events such as speech day.

My own personal experience with a school (I live opposite to a primary school) is that most parents are simply oblivious to the problems of residents and they simply disregard their objections unless and until the residents do something that inconveniences them (the parents) at which time they heap abuse upon the abused residents. I solved my own problem of being blocked by the simple expedient of blocking everyone (and I mean everyone) every time that I was blocked from getting into or out of my home. The school and the parents have learned that it is easier to be considerate rather than inconsiderate and as a result we have lived side by side very happily for the longest while disturbed only very occasionally when some wealthy woman (and it is alway the very wealthy women) decides that she does not have to be considerate and occasionally blocks me, with the attendant consequences.

But this post is not about my personal difficulties or how I have solved them, but rather about the machinations of the Town & Country Planning Division. How does this department make its decisions? Can a person affected by a decision object? If so, how does he find out about it before it has been granted?

So, I looked up the Town & Country Planning Act Chap.  35:01 for answers. The short point is that there isn't much that an affected person can do without spending a lot of money. If a person,let's call him X, buys a property that used to be a residence but he wants to use it as an office, he has to apply for a change of use certificate. But the neighbours won't usually know about this application until he has moved in and the office is a fait accomplis. Then X decides to sell to Y who wants to open a restaurant. Y makes his application and again the neighbours won't know what is going on until it is too late. This is what happened with Woodbrook. In other words, the change of use in a neighbourhood tends to creep in gradually and without those who will be directly affected being able to do anything about it in a timely manner. By that time there are so many approved changes that not to grant a change of use from residential to commercial can lead to an expensive law suit where the aggrieved applicant can legitimately claim that because others were granted permission then he ought to be granted as well.  Not to do so would be unfair.  This is what has happened with this new school.

Okay. I know that it is a little more complicated than that, but the point here is that there is no simple mechanism for persons being affectedby a potential decision from "taking in front" before the decision is made. That there are remedies available to those persons is a fact, but they all involve expensive lawyers who will charge "a pound and a crown" to try and set aside the decision that has already been made. (As one of those lawyers my bank manager and I would be very happy to take such a case, but it really isn't right, is it?)

There ought to be an easier, less expensive and more civilised way of dealing with this. Perhaps one solution might be to amend the law so that all applications for a change of use of any property has to be advertised at least, say, 4 weeks before any affirmative decision can be given. Then, if there are objections the relevant authority can hear them and weigh them against the interests of the property owner who quite understandably wants to deal with his property in the most profitable way for him.

Life is always about compromises and in any society there must always be a balance. Imbalances occur when there is a lack of timely information ... and that is my whole point.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was a boy in Presentation College in San Fernando at recess time (I believe the kids today now call it 'break') we would go outside the school grounds to buy a barra and channa for five cents and (when we could afford it) a 'doubles' (which was two barras with channa) for ten cents. Outside also were vendors selling shaved ice with syrup which we called 'a press'. (Today they call it 'a snow cone'). A press cost a penny (which was two cents). However, if you didn't have enough money you could get it without the syrup for one cent. So quite often a boy would say to the vendor "gimme a cent shave ice". Of course, because that was the least expensive thing that you could buy the saying developed "he like a cent shave ice", in other words, practically worthless.

In this last year before a general election the politics are going to become very interesting. We have currently all the brouhaha about the run-off proposals that are going before the Senate next week. The PNM is trying its best to de-rail the Bill as it (quite correctly) recognizes that in a three way fight it is the UNC that tends to get hurt. In a straight two way fight in a marginal constituency it is the PNM that usually ends up losing. (UNC voters, it seems, are more ready to try a third party than are PNM voters.) My own feeling is that the Bill will pass and that all the noise is really just that: noise. But that is not the point of this post.

Next on the agenda is what has become known as 'emailgate'. Discerning readers will remember that about a year ago the Leader of the Opposition disclosed in Parliament that he had a thread of emails which purported to be passing between the Prime Minister, the Attorney General and the then National Security adviser (who is today the Minister of National Security) which, if authentic, disclosed a serious criminal conspiracy to (inter alia) commit murder. The parties involved all strenuously denied that they had ever authored such emails and Dr. Rowley refused to say who had given them to him. (he said that he "got it in my mailbox!" ...Yeah! Right!) So, the accused all gave Google permission to disclose whether or not the alleged emails did in fact emanate from their respective accounts and after a lot of legal 'too-ing and fro-ing' it seems (if the newspaper reports are to be believed) that this issue is finally going to get closure.

One of two things is going to happen when this matter closes: either the Prime Minister et al are going to be shown to be guilty, in which case they will all probably be (or should be) arrested and charged immediately, or Dr. Rowley is going to have to resign. Well, he probably won't do that, but certainly he ought to. He will be guilty of misleading Parliament and it is no defence to say that 'well, I was just bringing this to the attention of Parliament. I didn't know if it was true or not, but I thought that it was serious enough to alert the national community'. An unbiased person will note that that defence would be a "crock", i.e., not worth 'a cent shave ice'. Dr. Rowley presented the offending emails as fact and made some very, very serious accusations against the alleged perpetrators. If that defence was really genuine he would have and should have taken it to the police. But he didn't! And therein hangs the tale!

Then we have the so called "principled stand" of Ms. Seepersad-Bachan and Mr. Dookeran when they voted against the Constitution Reform Bill because it didn't go far enough and deal with the issue of proportional representation ... another "crock". I mean, who really believes that? The perception that most people had from their "principled stand" was that the goodly lady and gentlemen were still smarting from their defeat at  the hands of COP Leader Prakash Ramadhar in the recently concluded COP internal elections ... defeat which some say was quietly helped not a little by UNC operatives who regard Mr. Ramadhar as being preferable to Ms. Seepersad-Bachan.

But the truth is that as far as electoral politics are concerned Ms. Seepersad-Bachan is not worth 'a cent shave ice' and Mr. Dookeran could not save his deposit anywhere in the country if he tried. That they both will exit the political scene next year is clear. Until then we can expect them both to use the bully pulpit of their respective ministerial offices to try and sting Mrs. Persad-Bissessar whenever they can. After all, they have absolutely nothing to lose by doing so, not even 'a cent shave ice'.