Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago
By Peter Ibbotson
When a British colony wants a new constitution, it has been said, there is no need for the Colonial Office to think very hard about a suitable one; there is a pigeon-hole full of second-hand constitutions all ready to be brought out and aired when the occasion arises!
That is the cynic’s view; but there is one aspect of colonial territories’ constitutions which suggests that they have indeed been produced from a pigeon-hole like a conjuror producing a rabbit from a hat. That is, of course, the obvious colonial nature of the constitutions themselves. The constitutions of most colonies are designed to perpetuate colonialism; designed to prevent those colonies from achieving self-government.
The new constitution proposed for Mauritius shows the typical aspects of the colonial constitution. There are three in all. First, the constitution proposes to retain a single-chamber legislature: a Legislative Council from which will be drawn the members of the Executive Council who, however, will not form a separate upper chamber. Secondly, there is the retention of nominated and official members in a single-chamber Legislative Council. In a democracy, the lower chamber of the legislature is wholly elected, and the administrators do not sit in the legislature. It is only in colonial constitutions that we find officials (who are administrators) sitting side-by-side with elected members and nominees. Thirdly, it is a feature of typical colonial constitutions that the Governor can bypass the leader of the party which gets a majority at any general election. Instead, the Ministers he appoints are either nominated by him, or elected from among the members of the legislature by the M.L.Cs. themselves.
All three aspects are included in the 1956 constitutional proposals. It is proposed for Mauritius to have a single-chamber Legislative Council which will include 12 nominated and 3 official members; and it is proposed that the Ministers shall continue to be elected (by P.R.) by the M.L.Cs from among themselves.
Is there an alternative to the imposition of this typically colonial constitution on Mauritius? Yes; most certainly there is. And if the fight against colonialism is to be won in Mauritius, this alternative is a weapon which must be adopted.
For a start, the nominees in the Legislative Council must go. The British Guiana Constitutional Commission in 1951 had some pertinent words on this subject: “Elected representatives cannot reasonably be expected to develop a sense of obligation and service on behalf of the whole if it can be asserted with any plausibility that the interest of one particular section — say that of European capital — is being protected by a device which can be used to thwart the will of the electorate in general.” And secondly, the new constitution must be modelled on the best constitution in the world; the constitution which has been exported all over the world. That is, the British Constitution.
In suggesting the adoption, with necessary and appropriate modifications, of the British Constitution in Mauritius, I am fortified by the words of Lord Halifax when in 1921 he recommended the introduction of elected M.L.Cs. In Trinidad: “The whole history of the African population of the West Indies inevitably drives them towards representative institutions fashioned after the British model.” And in making this suggestion regarding the constitution of Mauritius, I must acknowledge my indebtedness to Dr Eric Williams, Chief Minister of Trinidad.
Briefly, this is what I envisage for Mauritius; and indeed, for all colonial territories whose people have the noble aim of combating colonialism. Abolish the single-chamber Legislative Council with its elected and nominated and official members. Replace it instead with a bicameral legislature; that is, with a legislature having two houses, an Upper and a Lower. The Lower House should be entirely elected; the Upper House should be entirely nominated.
For Mauritius, a Lower House of 23 elected members would suffice. They should be elected preferably in single-member constituencies (as MP’s are in the UK), or failing that in multi-member constituencies as now. The system of voting should be that used in the UK — the simple majority vote. The Upper House might well consist of 15 nominated members.
Why transfer the nominees from the Lower House to an Upper House? First, at present they are nominated by the Governor; in my suggested Upper House they would not be so nominated. Second, a nominated Upper House is not an innovation; Canada has one, and it is proposed also for the new Federation of the British West Indies. Who would these nominated Upper House members be, then? That is a quite natural question; I will suggest an answer. Four should represent the island’s agricultural and commercial interests. Five should represent the religious denominations (for there are bishops of the Church of England in the House of Lords). Three should be ex-officio members: the Colonial Secretary, the Procureur and Advocate General, and the Chief Justice (after all, we have the Law Lords in the British Upper House). The remaining three should be men and women of distinction in public life nominated by the Governor on the recommendation of the Chief Minister.
These last three would be the only members to be nominated by the Governor. The rest would be nominated by the special interests concerned, or would be ex-officio. The five to represent the religious denominations would be the Bishop of Port Louis, the Bishop of Mauritius, a Pandit of the Hindu Faith, an Imam of the Moslem Faith (perhaps the Imam of the Jummah Mosque in Port Louis), and one other drawn from the other denominations. The two Bishops would be designated to sit in the Upper House; the other three would be nominated by the Faiths concerned. Those representing the agricultural and commercial interests would be nominated, obviously, by the Chamber of Commerce, the Chamber of Agriculture, the Sugar Producers’ Association and the ‘Planters’ Association; with the proviso that, since sugar would be twice represented through the two associations, the Chamber of Agriculture should nominate someone connected with another agricultural pursuit and unconnected with sugar.
Trade unions would not be specially represented in the Upper House. Why? Because the proper way for a trade unionist to get into Parliament or the Legislature is as an elected representative of the people, obviously enjoying the people’s trust. I have no use for trade unionists who carry favour by kow-towing to the employers. No trade unionist worth his salt will mind appearing before the electors; he would mind being nominated to the Council.
The members of the Lower House should elect one of themselves as Speaker. The Upper house would be presided over by the Chief Justice. There would be an executive council, corresponding to the British Cabinet, consisting of the Chief Minister and five other ministers plus the two Colonial Secretary and Procureur General. The Governor would preside but have a casting vote only. Decisions of the Executive would of course be binding on all members thereof (the doctrine of collective responsibility). Any member disagreeing with the decision of the Executive would have to resign. The Governor would of course have to appoint as Chief Minister the leader of the majority party who would select his own Ministers to form a government which must get the majority support of the elected House.
As in the UK, both Houses could initiate legislation except that only the Lower House could initiate matters dealing with money. The Upper House could amend or revise legislations (except money bills) and have, as in the UK, the power to delay legislations for one year only.
In other words, I suggest a constitution closely modelled on that of the UK, for only by such a constitution can the shackles of colonialism be cast aside.
* Published in print edition on 11 October 2019