“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.” Aldous Huxley, English writer.
In the present furore about selecting a new president, it appears that we, as a nation, and our leaders have rubbished our history. We have forgotten the history of the Independence Conference and its reflection of a divided nation.
We nod at the Republican Constitution without appreciating the precipitating nuances. We have ignored our experiences in the rush to personalise and politicise the current discussion on electing a president.
It is instructive to read the accounts of Lionel F Seukeran (Mr Speaker, Sir, 2006) and Kenneth R Lalla (I am a dream to my village, 2011) to appreciate the fundamental importance of political representation in our 1962 Constitution.
Mr Lalla was part of an unofficial delegation (The Indian Association of Trinidad, which was supposedly part of the then Opposition) along with HP Singh, Jhang Bahadoorsingh, and Lennox Deyalsingh.
In London, they sought to “make representations… on behalf of the Indian segment of the population for a constitution that would provide equity and justice to all.”
That delegation believed that Ashford Sinanan (deputy opposition leader) and Lionel Seukeran, members of the official Opposition delegation, were pro-Dr Eric Williams. They advocated for proportional representation to be enshrined in the Constitution, the Parliamentary structure (along the lines of Kenya and Cyprus), the Civil Service, the Police Force and the National Guard.
This Indian Association of Trinidad’s position was influenced by their view that racial discrimination and tension existed in the country.
The official Opposition delegation led by Dr Rudranath Capildeo also included Tajmool Hosein, Peter Farquhar and Stephen Maraj. The HP Singh faction swayed Dr Capildeo. The official delegates believed that proportional representation should be handled at another level. Capildeo relented under threat from his official delegation to fly home.
The official Opposition negotiated the issue of independent Senators (the Senate being a watchdog and a delay mechanism for adequate consideration of legislation) and the need to consult with the Opposition Leader before making appointments to the Public Service Commission. Press freedom was also entrenched in the Constitution.
The Wooding Commission on Constitutional Reform (1971 – 1974) raised the issue of a constituent assembly to create a Republican constitution. Two of the Commissioners believed that the body should be selected based on proportional representation.
Tapia argued that the country was facing a constitutional crisis and that a “Grand Assembly” should determine the rules that would govern in the future. Instead, the Government invited the public to submit written comments, and a draft bill was later published for public comment.
Attendance at the public meetings was low, and few memoranda were submitted. Selwyn Ryan (2009) quoted Williams as saying: “the mass of persons do not feel that there is anything wrong with the constitution at all.” Ryan claimed a 1974 survey supported this.
This Commission introduced the Electoral College to elect a president, removing the previous method of ‘on the advice of the prime minister’. Concerning the Wooding Commission’s recommendation about the president’s powers, Williams was unwilling to create a rivalry between the president and the prime minister—should the former be elected directly by the people.
On the issue of consultation, Williams pointed to an inherent practical difficulty: “if two people consult, and we have a gentleman’s agreement, that automatically calls for two gentlemen.”
That matter was finally resolved by empowering the president to make appointments at his discretion after consulting with the prime minister, the opposition leader and other persons whose views may be appropriate to seek. Interestingly, there was no formula should that consultation fail.
In Jamaica, the prime minister’s choice ultimately prevailed, but locally, it was left to the president to act in his own deliberate judgment.
Williams said: “They are either going to have to work with sufficient sense, or they would not work at all, and then you would have some difficulty, and that difficulty is going to be resolved.”
Williams was also concerned about the potential for abusing public officials who were being nominated. He warned about “members of Parliament… lambaste, and berate and denigrate public figures in the country.” Yet, Williams himself unfairly poured scorn on the members of the Wooding Commission.
What has happened since then? We pitched battle royale between President Ellis Clarke and Prime Minister ANR Robinson over the decision by Clarke to make two appointments: Alva Bain (December 1986) and former Chief Justice Cecil Kelsick, to be a member of the Judicial and Legal Service Commission four days before demitting office in March 1987.
We then had the spectacle of Mrs Kamla Persad Bissessar, after a cabinet retreat, announcing the appointment of a Central Bank Governor. This act breached the Central Bank Act 79.02, which states that the president makes that appointment.
In practice, however, it appears that the president acts on the advice of the Cabinet.
She had previously made President Anthony Carmona a pappyshow in the first week of his term in Laventille. He had been dragged to a Hoops for Life celebration, a blatant political event, where he remained wordless.
Ms Christine Kangaloo, as acting president, in deciding to approve the dismissal of the last Central Bank Governor, did not follow the wisdom of the Ellis Clarke precedent of allowing the substantive holder to make the decision.
The route to dismissal ostensibly lies with the president, but who provides the proof of the misbehaviour? That appears to lie with the finance minister and the cabinet. The Act does not spell it out explicitly.
If this is the case, what can a president do more than what was done by Robinson post the 2000 elections, when he delayed complying with Basdeo Panday’s request to seat failed politicians?
Can a president constitutionally buck the advice of the Cabinet in those circumstances? President Carmona’s statement on the limits of Presidential powers is pertinent.
In his inaugural address, he said, “The powers you think I have, I do not,” but “The powers you think I do not have, I do.” Martin Daly had a worthwhile opinion on this matter which present-day UNC leaders should revisit.
It has been argued that Ms Kangaloo is a political partisan. Her role as Senate president should be assessed in the context of the membership of that body. Has Ms Kangaloo been politically partisan in her handling of Senators Wade Mark, Anil Roberts and David Nahkid?
Or should the questions be: “are these gentlemen the kind of senatorial representation our forefathers anticipated?” and “has she been restrained in her dealings?”
In a never-seen-before string of events, we have seen a full media interview by Mr Israel Khan, the other nominee, and a daily dripping of comments by Opposition figures in the last week. How will the nation survive?
Our history demands some answers. Does either nomination speak to a capacity to provide healing for the deepening and evident ethnic and political divides?
Does either political leader rise to the occasion of seeking the nation’s best interests in the nomination process, or are they playing to their fringe bases? Is this a repeat of Capildeo in London?
Is the constant denigration of our public office holders by our rabble-rousers scaring away suitable candidates, robbing us of more desirable choices? Are we comfortable with the coarsening of our national dialogue?
Is the country’s concern about bread-and-butter matters clouding our appreciation of the need for greater clarity in our constitutional arrangements?
Our destiny lies in our answers!