There is a new example of political truth being stranger than fiction. It is that it takes two very wobbly Attorneys General to make a distrusted Opposition look good.
When it was not trying to pretend that the outcome of the recent case in the Privy Council (the PC) was not a defeat, although it plainly was, the Government—through its current attorney general Reginald Armour SC—spent a lot of time absurdly pretending that its failed attempt to extend the life of local government councillors and aldermen was in effect an understandable error.
However on Monday last in Parliament, when debate began on the necessary validating local government legislation, the Opposition looked good not only because the Attorney General (the AG) persisted in the chosen Government spin that its defeat in the PC was not a defeat.
The leader of the Opposition, Kamla Persad Bissessar, is unattractively embedded in leadership of the Opposition, despite a number of significant electoral losses that should have sent her into the political hereafter. Nevertheless, she did well exposing the fact that, when it belatedly proclaimed the successfully challenged extension, the Government must have known that it was reversing a position it had previously put before the Parliament.
In the House of Representatives, the Leader of the Opposition made that point by reminding us of speeches in 2019 recorded in Hansard—both her words as well as those of the previous but since demoted Attorney General, Faris Al Rawi.
That previously held position was that amendments to the Municipal Corporations Act would not be used for the purpose of keeping incumbent councillors and aldermen in office for an additional year beyond the due date of the next election.
Yet when, as a consequence of that reversal, the Privy Council ruled that the Miscellaneous Provisions (local Government Reform) Act 2022 could not be used for that purpose, the Government feigned surprise and claimed innocent motivation.
The Trinidad Express newspaper carried a full report of that blow struck by Kamla (as she is generally known).
The front page summarised the moment as follows: “Kamla proves through 2019 Hansard she had warned Government against using the Local Government Reform bill to extend the life of current councillors and to delay election. Warnings were completely shot down by then AG Al Rawi who described it as ‘poppycock’ and ‘absolute nonsense’.”
The reason why Al Rawi so scathingly described Kamla’s position revealed a serious credibility gap on the Government’s part. In 2019 he told the House it was: “Absolute nonsense! Because Mr Deputy Speaker, we have to be reminded that as the Honourable Prime Minister said, an election will be called when due.”
That’s exactly what the Government did not do. Plainly put, the Government went back on its word until restrained by the PC decision, which declared the Government’s position “inimical to democracy”.
Much hating on each other goes on in the Parliament, but on this occasion the Opposition, in rant free speech, made its case that the Government knowingly misled the House and the country.
Good points are lost when the speakers in Parliament on both sides are in the habit of being keyed up and uncontrollably aggressive. However, I am not optimistic that there will be a lasting change to rant free presentations.
Meanwhile there was a provision in clause 5 of the validating legislation that validation would go “thereafter”—that is beyond 18 May, the date of the PC decision, to the commencement of the validating Act. Having resisted the Opposition’s suggestion in the House to delete clause 5, as a result of a subsequent conversation with Independent Senator Paul Richards, Government moved in the Senate to delete from Clause 5 the words:
“[…] and thereafter exercise the functions of Councillors and Aldermen up until the commencement of this Act.”
But are we done with the political hereafter of this local government fiasco?
Although it may be unlikely that enough voters in the coming local government elections will turn out to increase the usual abysmally low poll, we wait to see whether the “rumbling and tumbling in the atmosphere” over the electorate’s right to vote will produce a different poll dynamic.