Just when it seemed the majority of Saint Lucians had given up on our politicians, irrevocably convinced by indisputable evidence that in our country it will always be party first—never country—our two leading politicians have given us good reason to keep hope alive. On Monday evening Prime Minister Allen Chastanet and House opposition leader Philip J. Pierre sat shoulder to shoulder on the same side of a table, their demeanor for once indicative of minds united in the public interest.
I have covered since the mid-70s more sessions of parliament than I care to recall—if only to spare myself the reopening of related psychic wounds—but not once had I witnessed such gentlemanly give and take between a leader of government and his opposition counterpart. Also at the table were well-known lawyer and radio personality Andy George, and former attorney general Kim St. Rose.
For several weeks following the June 6 general elections the last mentioned had featured regularly in the news bulletins of every TV and radio station, to say nothing of the columns of the print media. By all accounts, she seemed to represent at the time a huge fly in the new prime minister’s ointment . . . but we need not go into that sorry mess yet again; evidently the problem has been resolved. On Monday evening Kim St. Rose served as moderator during what had been advertised as a debate but turned out to be more of a fireside chat, albeit without fire. House Speaker Rosie Husbands-Mathurin never had it so good!
Of special interest to me was the evening’s topic: constitutional reform—a more contentious subject for Saint Lucians I know not, save perhaps IMPACS or Grynberg. Doubtless many will recall the fate of the so-called Suzie d’Auvergne Commission that had been put together for the precise purpose of discovering how Saint Lucians felt about our constitution. Among other things, its report underscored that when it came to decision-making the popular consensus was that local prime ministers had far too much power and the people far too little influence.
There was also an appeal for the right of recall, so that the people need not continue to suffer longer than necessary the consequences of below-par parliamentary representation. It didn’t take long before the predictable occurred, proving yet again leaders of governments in these parts truly are monarchs of all they survey from their lofty perches. Hardly batting an eye, the day’s prime minister had pronounced the report not reflective of the people’s thinking. (It had taken retired judge Suzie d’Auvergne and her fellow commissioners close to four years to put together; she passed away before the report finally landed before a dismissive parliament!) He referred with almost palpable contempt to “this obsession with the power of the prime minister,” and dismissed outright the popular demand for the right of recall. It should also be said that the prime minister’s attitude to the proposed constitutional amendments had attracted scant opposition. Indeed, on more than one occasion the other side shared the prime minister’s obviously self-serving views, especially on the matter of recall. Finally the prime minister set aside the report with the hollow-sounding promise to revisit it at an unspecified future date.
Oh, but what a change on Monday. The new prime minister declared a good thing “whatever helps heighten the people’s awareness of our Constitution and the politics involved.” He noted that since “we have not had any substantial constitutional changes [since 1979] it may be a good thing for me to have a wish list. But at the end of the day it is going to take consensus. I think we are going to have to try to pick something on which we can find some consensus and start moving with it.”
He hoped the dialogue started on the boundaries commission, and the recommendations requested by the former prime minister of the Commonwealth Secretariat, would end in consensus.
The opposition leader gently reminded him that the matter was still before the courts; still unresolved. (I couldn’t help wondering what would prevent both sides of the House from agreeing—in the spirit of country before party!— to withdraw the matter. Rape charges are withdrawn all the time, even in mid-trial!) As for the term limits proposal in the d’Auvergne report, the prime minister said he was not averse to the idea “on a personal level.” On the other hand, he had “spoken to many regular people, not politicians, who were of the view that term limits could possibly impede democracy.” The unidentified citizens wanted to be free to elect their representatives as many times as they chose, said the prime minister.
Repeating himself, he said: “I’m all for term limits. Three terms are more than enough, bearing in mind the stresses of the job these days. It’s a lot to ask anyone to serve for more than three terms as prime minister.”
The opposition leader had something to say on that: “The only reason we want term limits is because of the inordinate power of the prime minister. People will say, ‘Look at him, he’s been in office over 20 years.’ And they will ask: ‘Does the country belong to him, does it belong to her?’ If there are adequate checks and balances . . . Consider the prime minister. He usually is also finance minister and leader of his party. He is the only person in the country who can fire without notice and without having to pay compensation. That’s the reality. I know we can have discussions like this and make things seem nicer than the reality. But you have to be practical.”
He shared the view that the people should have the right to keep a prime minister in office for 30 years, “but there must be checks and balances.” He also believed more people could be attracted into politics “but the trouble is, when you lose you starve. An opposition person cannot expect ever to get a government contract, even if he is an engineer or the best economist.”
As for the recall question: “The finance minister will tell you all about fiscal realities, these things you want for your constituency cost money. He has to choose between saving an MP from being recalled for poor representation and doing something for a more deserving constituency.” At least what he said on Monday was different from his utterances on the same subject in 2016. And in tones more audience-friendly!
Finally it wasn’t so much the refreshing fact that on Monday there was no name-calling, no insults tossed, no demonstrated lack of respect for one another that gave me hope for the future. In truth, there was less agreement on Monday evening than there had been at the recalled 2016 tabling of the d’Auvergne report in parliament. But the attitude, as earlier noted, reminded that it is indeed possible to debate in the name of the people without conjuring images of hungry wolf packs fighting for possession of a rabbit’s foot. It need also be said that, other than proving it is not beyond our representatives to be civil toward one another, Monday evening’s discourse made little sense. After all, the proposals discussed on the occasion might’ve more usefully been debated in the House—and greater respect shown the people’s wishes. I trust NTN will soon rebroadcast Monday evening’s “Discourse on the Constitution”—if only for the sake of that section of our under-20 population not yet altogether lost!