By Raffique Shah
Sunday, May 17th 2009
FRANKLY, I don’t give a flying fig whether President Max Richards opts to stay in a ski-lodge in the Alps for the entire summer, or he and Mrs Richards rent a castle in Austria, or they drop in on Denis Solomon at his “remote cottage” in north Italy, as he once described it to me. What I resent is every-man-Jack-or-Bas calling on President Max to return home pronto.
Why the haste to have him back in Trinidad? That he has thoroughly mucked up an attempt to reconstitute the Integrity Commission is the least of his sins. Do people really believe he would give a plausible explanation for his fundamental errors in that exercise? Or that he is so gifted, he would work miracles and have a new, acceptable Commission in place in short order?
Let’s be brutally frank: President Max has not distinguished himself in any way ever since he was elected to the highest office in the country. I cannot think of a single act on his part that is worthy of praise. Worse, coming as he did after Presidents Robinson and Hassanali, two distinguished sons of the soil, he has paled by comparison. Some people believe Robinson was “too political”, and maybe that’s a fair comment. Indeed, he rubbed many politicians the wrong way by things he said or did. Mr Hassanali proved to be the best president we’ve had since becoming a republic in 1976-a commoner who rose through the ranks by sheer ability, one who could mingle with the élite yet not lose the common touch. Most of all, his integrity was beyond question.
My concern at this point is not about an Integrity Commission being in place. I think Registrar Martin Farrell and his staff are perfectly capable of carrying out their duties in the absence of a duly appointed Commission. Indeed, they may even function better, not having the latter peeping over their shoulders, or politicians attempting to bully them one way or other. I don’t know what the legal position is, whether staff at the Commission can demand compliance, issue certificates of clearance, or lay charges against those in public office who breach the Act.
I do have an interest, though, in the amendment Bill currently before Parliament. I am in the fortunate position of having operated on both sides of the fence. I am a journalist who would expose malfeasance on the part of public officials if I have proof they are guilty of a crime. And I am a public official who fiercely defends my integrity, but who nevertheless is subject to being investigated by the Commission, the police, or my colleagues in the media. I have not seen or read the Bill, but having listened to the AG and several government ministers defend it, and opposition MPs, independent and opposition senators oppose it, I think I get the gist of what the Bill seeks to do.
As a journalist (or parliamentarian-Jah forbid!), I would want to know I have easy access to information on public officials who may be involved in shady activities or downright fraud. I don’t know how many people here have followed what’s happening in Britain. There, members of the House of Lords, ministers and opposition parliamentarians have been exposed (mainly by the media) as having padded expenditure, made false claims for allowances, and worse. Indeed, from wealthy OECD countries to poor nations where millions of ordinary people starve, politicians and public officials have a nasty reputation for unbridled corruption.
I believe such persons should be jailed, and not placed in any special prisons, but among common thieves-which is where they belong. For far too long ordinary citizens, some of whom “like it so” (as Sparrow sang), have been robbed blind by these bandits disguised in jackets-and-ties. It’s time to clamp down on them, to make them pay for their heinous crimes. Once due process has been followed, ram the fear of God into their sullied souls.
By similar token, though, public officials who carry out their duties with due diligence, but who are subjected to scurrilous, unwarranted attacks by journalists or politicians or members of the public, need to have recourse against those who tarnish their characters.
When I was an editor I told journalists they could not rely on unsigned documents or even sworn affidavits to support allegations against anyone. Only a final judgement by an appropriate authority gives one the right to make a definitive statement: you, sir, are a thief!
Instead, people who volunteer for public office that often pays peanuts are subjected to worst forms of abuse, often in the highest forum in the country, Parliament. The PAEC, in an official report, recommended that my fellow directors and I be charged for contempt and fraud! And we have no recourse against the “alligators” (as the late Joffre Serrette would have said).
Integrity laws and other measures to curb corruption are necessary, but they must have teeth. They must also allow for fairness, for those who are wronged to have their names cleared, and provisions for the malicious “alligators” to pay for public mischief-out of their private purses.