By Raffique Shah
June 06, 2016
When constitutionally-independent institutions in the country seem to be collapsing, when holders of the highest offices seem confused about their roles and perplexed about their powers, and when the law publicly proves to be the proverbial ass, then, Trinidad & Tobago, we have a problem…a very serious problem.
Many people may have missed it, but last week the Integrity Commission published the names of more than 1,000 public officials who failed to file their declarations of interest forms, as they are required to under the Integrity in Public Life Act, over the period 2003 to 2014.
Among them is one former prime minister, approximately 25 percent of parliamentarians from all parties, hundreds of regional corporation councillors (among them prominent mayors), commissioners who served on statutory commissions, and a phalanx of State boards’ directors.
There were repeat offenders who seem to have never complied but who nevertheless continue to hold high offices to this day.
The Act was proclaimed in 2000, under the Basdeo Panday administration, and the Commission established shortly thereafter. Broadly stated, their provisions and powers were intended to eliminate corruption by having all senior officials who have some control or influence over public funds declare their incomes, assets, etc, and those of their immediate families, every year.
I imagine the reasoning was that if, one year after holding some high office, and in subsequent years, an official’s assets increased inexplicably, the declaration would unravel the mystery. He or she might be supremely lucky, winning the Lotto once or twice a year, especially when the jackpot reaches double digits.
Personally, I believe the Integrity Act and Commission are a waste of time and money: you cannot induce integrity by legislation; a person either has it or he doesn’t.
In the instant case, the Commission has failed to have this huge number of officials file their declarations, has failed to take any action against them. To underscore its impotence, it has resorted to publishing their names, hoping to “name and shame” them.
But how do you shame people who are shameless?
In what was a case of supreme irony, the Commission took legal action against the architect of the llaw, Panday, and that came about only because he had filed his declaration in which he had failed to declare a bank account in London.
He was charged in 2002 and the case was eventually dismissed by a magistrate in 2012-because the Commission had failed to follow due process.
So Panday was punished after he filed his declaration, but hundreds of others who refuse to file theirs are “named and shamed”. You see why I say the law is an ass?
The Commission has the powers to pursue the delinquents via the High Court, and if they still fail to comply, they can be fined heavily, even jailed—once due process is followed.
But nothing further will come out of this, which is why I submit that the Act should be repealed and the Commission disbanded: put them out of their misery.
The other institution that is failing the country is the presidency. His Excellency President Anthony Carmona committed a serious breach of protocol when he hosted Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro during the latter’s official visit to this country.
Because Maduro is executive President of Venezuela, meaning he is both Head of Government and Head of State, he is entitled to meet with both our Head of State (the President) and Head of Government (the Prime Minister).
But while Maduro is empowered to discuss and negotiate with the PM issues of governance and mutual interest (security, trade, economic cooperation), the visit and talks with our President, who does not have executive powers and must know his limitations, cannot include matters that are the preserve of the Government.
In this instance, President Carmona, live on television, was heard asking Maduro to “do something about those guns coming into our country”, or words to that effect.
Such sensitive matters are discussed privately, and in any event, not by our ceremonial President.
Staying with the President and his opaque permutation of powers, one that has come to the fore is his selection of persons to serve as independent senators. In this case, the President exercises absolute power.
However, because the independents hold the balance of power in the Senate, such persons, besides being intelligent and having experience in general or specific fields that would enhance debate and discussion in the Chamber, must also possess character.
Some of President Carmona’s selections seem to have none of these qualities, and based on what I have read in newspapers, one of them comes across as a common cyber-thug.
Surely, the constitutional powers vested in the President in this regard did not envisage him imposing unsavoury characters on the Upper House.
Such scavenging should be left to political parties, not President’s House.