I can’t help but admire animal welfare activist Jowelle deSouza, who received more attention than any other national awardee last weekend. In March 1997, special reserve police officer Eric George arrested her for shoving a man who was harassingly following and photographing her in San Fernando—the same prurient interest our media showed in her last weekend—then he had her strip searched. De Souza sued, represented by attorney Lynette Maharaj (incidentally the wife of the Attorney General), won, and made history. In March 1999, George shot and killed his wife Tara, before taking his own life. Last Sunday De Souza received a national award, the bronze Hummingbird Medal.
Another reason to admire Jowelle is the way she parlayed sensationalism over her gender when the award was announced into an advance announcement of a likely run for the San Fernando West parliamentary seat—perhaps the most marginal of marginals. Already, she’s made it a historic race. And already I’m signing up to volunteer.
Of course it’s historic, because, according to some tasteless headlines, she’s “sex change Jowelle” and her candidacy will be a test of whether LGBTI people will be allowed the right to political participation like everyone else. But it’s historic because—provided they survive legal challenges already initiated, relentless citizen protests, and appeals to President Carmona to withhold assent—it will help us gauge the impact on popular independent candidates of the convoluted runoff/triangulaire provisions thrust into the Constitution in language hastily drafted late at night.
Jowelle is perhaps the kind of representative the Constitution Reform commissioners had in mind when they agreed, after the consultation process, to support runoffs in elections for the House.
What’s become completely lost in the haste and screaming on all sides about the runoff provision is that it was never intended to be used in the selection of a government. In what’s been misrepresented as a stepwise implementation of the Commission’s key proposals, we are prematurely and unnecessarily amending the Constitution in ways we’ll have to undo when we implement additional elements of the reform package.
The Commission proposed government be elected by proportional representation, with seats on the political benches of a new senate allocated to parties in proportion to votes won nationally, with the party/parties commanding a majority of the votes forming the government. Senators occupying these seats would be selected by going down a list put forward to the electorate by parties in advance of the election. The political leader would be at the top and become prime minister if the party won a majority of the votes, and all ministers would be selected from other senators.
MPs would be elected to the House in a simultaneous but separate ballot, and would neither determine the government nor serve as ministers, but instead be elected first-past-the-post to represent different constituencies’ interests in a legislative body that provided checks and balances on the government and senators in the upper house. Judgment of some MPs’ fitness for recall would not be affected by neglect of constituencies due to ministerial duties; and to strengthen their representation of constituencies, the Commission added a minor feature—runoff elections—to the reform proposals after the consultations, to ensure representatives received the votes of a majority of those voting in each constituency. There would be no delay constituting a new government for runoffs to be completed; they would have no role in deciding that.
The new House of Representatives would encourage small party and independent candidacies, since voting for parliamentary representation would be separate from voting for national government. In 2010, for example, voters in Diego Martin Central could decide they loved Amery Browne’s representation but vote separately to get rid of Patrick Manning; those in St Ann’s East could put Verna St Rose-Greaves in the House, but keep the Partnership out of power.
That’s the framework in which I wish Jowelle were running. But what was brought to Parliament instead were amendments to the Constitution that allow runoff election measures to decide the government, which was never contemplated.
What I admire about Jowelle as well is that she’s not a “gay activist,” as headlines in the newspapers misrepresented. The work she has done to change social attitudes toward sexual and gender diversity has been by living her life and engaging in nation-building in other ways: as a successful businesswoman, a champion of animals, and an outspoken critic of governance.
I’m told her award was proposed by Government, which is a refreshing sign late in the Partnership’s tenure both of LGBTI inclusion and of its ability to recognise deserving critics. That and the appointment of Lynette Seebaran-Suite to steer the Equal Opportunity Commission is really good news.
Let’s hope real policy comes next.
One can only hope, too, that the return of Gillian Lucky, another amazing patriot, to the bench is a path to even higher office. She and her team allowed the nation to imagine the Police Complaints Authority could function, and made it a safe place for LGBTI citizens to report police abuse. I hope her successor can do the same.
Unlike my fellow columnist Clarence, though, no party has yet taken me up on the interest I expressed a month ago to work to strengthen the policies of the next government. So maybe my toil will be to help elect smart, daring candidates like Jowelle.
Forging the liberty to love: one nation…many bodies…boundless faith