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Daly Bread: Abstinence, abstention and absconding; sold short by procurement vote

Politicians and their satellites do not always practise abstinence from corruption.  If persons populating our institutions abstain, without credible cause, from the limited opportunities to act as checks and balances, we can expect no change in the rate at which the corrupt will abscond unjustly enriched.

Last week, amidst public concern about the effect of abstentions and in the interest of fairness, I expressed my opinion that Independent Senator Dr Maria Dillon-Remy should not be targeted as the sole ‘cause’ of the government successfully diluting the procurement legislation, by being able to pass an amending bill through what is known as a simple majority.

Photo: Independent Senator Dr Maria Dillon-Remy makes her contribution during debate on the Miscellaneous Amendments (Powers of Statutory Authorities and Matters related to certain Boards) Bill, 2020.
(Copyright 2020 Office of the Parliament)

Fairness also requires that the independent senators who abstained should be held to account. One of them reportedly referred to high principles being at stake and demanded ‘withdraw the Bill’. He later contracted different withdrawal symptoms at the time of the final vote, which sapped his robustness.  

Another one of them referred to ‘the several thousand red flags raised by the bill’.

I am aware that the government made some amendments but, when examined, the concessions seem insufficient to still a cry of ‘withdraw the Bill’ and may be more of an excuse than a good reason for the abstentions. They are confusing to the public given that the speeches of the abstainers were so fierce and unconditional. 

Did the amendments accepted in Committee lower the multitudinous red flags?

Occasionally, abstention is a justifiable position. This does not seem to be one such sitution. 

If, contrary to their fiery protestations, the senators were satisfied with the concessions, why did only Senator Dillon-Remy amongst the independent senators have the courage of her convictions to come out and vote yes?

Photo: Independent Senator Paul Richards.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament)

According to the constitution, in order to secure a majority in ‘either House’ of Parliament, the proposer requires the support of ‘the majority of the votes of the members thereof present and voting’.

To abstain is to refrain from doing something. In accordance with the standing orders, abstentions are separately recorded and announced in the Parliament because they are treated as neither a vote for, nor against a motion. In the instant case in the Senate, the abstentions were therefore ineffective to stymie the government’s majority of members entitled to vote.

Only 15 of the 16 government senators have an original vote, because one of them is the president of the Senate who has only a casting vote. Consequently, from the moment the first abstention on the final vote occurred, the government was home and dry, even if the remaining eight of the nine Independents joined all six opposition senators in voting against the proposal.

For her sole ‘yes’ vote when her eight other colleagues abstained, Senator Dillon-Remy was wrongly abused because of a misunderstanding of the constitutional and standing order provisions for determination by a majority and the effect of the eight abstentions.

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.
(via OPM)

For completeness, readers should be reminded that under our constitution what is known as a special majority, for example three fifths, requires the specified majority of ‘all members of that House’—not simply members ‘present and voting’.

Over decades, there are notorious cases of significant fines or ‘settlement sums’ being paid for illicit and unethical practices in the procurement of foreign government business; the juicier bribes relating to the sales of arms and military assets and the intervention of persons with ‘contact’.

A year before the establishment of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act 1977, a colourful case was revealed. Prince Bernhard of the Dutch Royal family had reportedly demanded ‘commissions’ from Lockheed Corporation, the aircraft manufacturer.  

It was exposed in the US Senate that Prince Bernhard had obtained a US million-dollar bribe from Lockheed, purportedly to influence the Dutch government’s purchase of fighter aircraft.

Softness in parliamentary scrutiny is currently a real worry during this Parliament, especially as the Opposition’s credibility is negligible, and without too many attractive options for change offered in its recent internal elections.  

Photo: Opposition Leader and head of UNC political party Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament 2020)

The defeated Vasant Bharath slate was known as team ‘Lotus’, although in some respects it did not resemble the revered and fragrant Lotus flower.

Indeed, in all quarters, our political circumstances are too frequently far from fragrant.

About Martin Daly

Martin Daly
Martin G Daly SC is a prominent attorney-at-law. He is a former Independent Senator and past president of the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago. He is chairman of the Pat Bishop Foundation and a steelpan music enthusiast.

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