By Sada Reddi
The Mauritius constitution has often been described as a colonial constitution, imposed by the British and as such did not represent the aspirations of the Mauritian people. A different view is that it was an evolutionary constitution, grounded in the Mauritian reality, and came about following negotiations with the various representatives of Mauritian parties present at the Lancaster Conference of 1965. Since 1968 it has been amended – but not always in a democratic spirit, and fresh reforms are necessary to update it.
In 1965, a Mauritian delegation participated in the constitutional conference at Lancaster House. Departing for London – Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam with Nigel Fisher, Gaëtan Duval, Kissoonsingh Hazareesingh, Louis Espitalier-Noël and R. Jomadar
There were also widespread consultations with the Mauritian public even before the 1965 conference. Professor De Smith was appointed Commissioner to visit Mauritius. He visited the island between July and August 1964 for consultations. His visit was advertised and he met all the ministers, the Governor, public officials, and leaders of political parties. In August 1964, De Smith also interviewed the Tamil United Party and the Muslim United party and received 40 memoranda from parties, groups and individuals. Dr Ramgoolam was not in Mauritius during his visit but he met and discussed with him in London. Later the various parties sent their memoranda to the Secretary of State in which they expressed their aspirations and these were discussed at the Conference.
During the drafting of the Constitution, there were regular consultations with the State Law office. In an article by Pravesh Lallah, in memory of Rajsoomer Lallah in le Mauricien of 5th June 2012, he recalled how Rajsoomer Lallah ‘felt especially lucky to have been able to work on the drafting of the Mauritian constitution. In fact, he was in the Attorney General’s office and guided the government in making the transition from a British colony to a new independent state.’
The main protagonist in the making of the constitution was the Mauritius Labour Party and its memorandum, prepared by Sir Harilall Vaghjee, was discussed at the London Conference, September 1965. We reproduce below the Labour Party document to the Conference which can provide readers with the views and political values of the party during that crucial period. We have divided the document in two parts. The first part covers the first eleven articles of the memorandum and in a next edition we shall cover the second part.
Document – Part 1
Of proposals of the Mauritius Labour Pary for the free status and the Constitution of Mauritius to be discussed at the London conference, September 1965.
1. Status of Mauritius
The aim of the Mauritius Labour party is the early attainment of Independence by Mauritius as a sovereign state. The Labour Party asks that this aim be accepted in principle at the Conference and that be fixed for its attainment.
2. It is the earnest hope of the Labour Party that Mauritius should remain one of Her Majesty’s dominions, and that her Majesty would be graciously pleased to become Queen of Mauritius.The Labour party also hopes that Mauritius would be accepted into membership of the Commonwealth.
3. The Labour Party is conscious of the burdens of independent status and recognises the value of close cooperation with, and indeed the necessity for a degree of dependence upon, the United Kingdom and other members of the Commonwealth. It is assumed that independence would be preceded by the conclusion of treaties with the United Kingdom on such subjects as defence and the representation of Mauritius in foreign states, where such representation is not available.
4.The Labour party considers however that the external affairs policy of Mauritius should be a matter for Mauritius government, as a necessary consequence of sovereign status, the relationship of Mauritius with Commonwealth countries or other friendly foreign states, should, whether or not involving a degree of dependence, be established of the free will of Mauritius, and would be all the stronger for that.
5. The Governor General
Her Majesty should be represented in Mauritius by a Governor-General, who would exercise her constitutional powers as her representative.
6. The Parliament
The parliament should consist of the Governor General and one chamber, for which the title of National Assembly is suggested. The ‘Westminster model’ should be followed closely on the relationship of the Executive and Parliament and in the practice and procedure of Parliament. The franchise, to be extended to persons of eighteen years of age, should be scheduled to the Constitution.
7.The electoral system
It is suggested that there should be 20 constituencies, each returning 3 members to the National Assembly. There should be block voting, each voter should be obliged to cast for 3 candidates.
8. The Labour Party supports the continued application of the three principles regarding representation which formed part of the London Agreement of 1957.The Labour Party is conscious that some means must be found to secure adequate representation of the Mauritian Muslim and the Sino-Mauritian communities in so far that they may not secure adequate representation through the existing political parties. However, bearing in mind the third agreed principle, that the system of voting should facilitate voting on grounds of political principle and party rather on the grounds of race or religion, and the experience of the last two general elections, the Labour Party does not accept that any other group is in need of any special provision for representation.
9. In approaching the difficult question of method, the Labour party has an open mind, but is firmly of the opinion that the following principles should prevail in any system which may be devised namely that –
(1) the number of members nominated to represent the above-mentioned communities should be sufficient and only sufficient to make up (where necessary) the representation of the two communities to the figures warranted by the proportions of the population which the communities represent.
(2) The members so nominated should be selected automatically from unsuccessful candidates on the ‘best loser’ system and should not be selected at the discretion of any person;
(3) Provision must be made for the correction of any imbalance in the relative strengths of the government and the opposition parties resulting from the nomination of ‘best losers’, and this should require the Governor General to nominate where necessary a number of members up to the present nominated ‘best losers’ on the advice of the Prime Minister;
(4) Not more than twenty nominated members would be necessary to meet the requirements set out above.
10.The Speaker should be elected by members of the National Assembly from amongst their own number, after the retirement of the present speaker.
11. Executive powers
It is proposed that the Governor General should elect the Prime Minister according to the Westminster system and that the prime Minister and his Cabinet should be collectively responsible to the National Assembly. The normal life of Parliament should be five years, subject to extension of five years in time of war. The powers of the Governor General in relation to the dissolution of Parliament should be similar to those provided in the 1961 constitution of Sierra Leone and in the 1965 Independence Constitution of Kenya. That is to say the Governor General shall dissolve Parliament on the advice of the Prime Minister, but shall have the power to dissolve the Parliament if the national Assembly passes a vote of no confidence in the Government and the Prime Minister does not either resign or recommend a dissolution. He shall have the power to disregard the advice of the Prime Minister to dissolve parliament if he considers that the Government can be carried out without a dissolution and that a dissolution is not in the national interest, and he shall be required to dissolve Parliament if the office of the Prime Minister is vacant and the Governor General considers that there is no prospect of his being able to appoint a Prime Minister who can command a majority in the National Assembly.
* Published in print edition on 30 July 2021
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