By Raffique Shah
September 16, 2012
FIFTY years ago, in one of his now-famous speeches delivered during the euphoria of Independence, Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams told citizens of the fledgling nation, “…Democracy, finally, rests on a power higher than Parliament. It rests on an informed and cultivated and alert public opinion….” I recalled that injunction last week when the nation was shaken from its Jubilee stupor to learn, through the alertness of the media, that an injudicious act of Parliament was about to hurl us down a legal precipice, the consequences of which are best left to the imagination.
I refer to the now-notorious Section 34 of the Administration of Justice Act (2011). You and I, citizens, have little interest in the details of bills that are brought before Parliament. We may note the broad intent of certain legislation and express views on them. For example, when the Patrick Manning administration introduced amendments to the Property Tax Act in 2010, there was near-universal condemnation of the new provisions. I should add that mine was a minority voice calling for moderation of the proposed fees, not abandonment of the tax.
There were many other instances when the masses engaged Parliament in open debate over proposed laws; the Dangerous Dogs Act and the Public Order Bill (1970) come to mind. Generally, though, we leave legislative matters to Government’s legal advisers and the elected and nominated members of Parliament. In other words, we trust the persons charged with running the affairs of State to do the job effectively and efficiently.
But we have learnt over the years that Dr Williams’ dictum, his note that democracy depends on the active involvement of the masses (a right he often tried to suppress, I need add), holds true today as it did 50 years ago. Had a Guardian reporter not noted the legal actions filed by two “Piarco” accused under Section 34, seeking to escape trial for serious fraud, a number of felons, some of them as dangerous as mass murderers given the nature of their alleged crimes, might have escaped justice.
Indeed, many of them may yet escape. And even if they fail, their attempts could cost taxpayers huge sums in legal fees. We must ask the question, how the hell did this happen? And who is or are responsible for what is tantamount to a legal catastrophe? There are umpteen attorneys in Parliament, including newly minted senior counsels in the persons of Attorney General Anand Ramlogan and Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. Justice Minister Herbert Volney never lets us forget that he sat on the Bench for many years. Legal Affairs Minister Prakash Ramadhar entered politics on the foundation of an outstanding legal career. There are sundry other lawyers in Government, and among the Opposition and the Independents in the Senate. Senate President Roger Hamel-Smith took the chair with a legal pedigree that spans generations.
Mark you, I haven’t added the phalanx of legal advisers who cost taxpayers arms and legs for every brief they pursue, every document they peruse. Yet, all the Queen’s men (and women), and all the Queen’s donkeys, had to cut-and-paste and use chewing gum to try and put Humpty Dumpty together again.
What the hell is going on in Parliament? The best explanation the AG could proffer was, “All ah we make ah mistake!” His limp defence of the indefensible reminded me of Desmond Cartey’s “all ah we t’ief”. And we are expected to trust these people with collecting and spending more than $50 billion of our money every year, with managing a country with assets worth, maybe, several trillion dollars.
Fortunately for citizens, the much-maligned media serve as watchdogs of their interests, refusing to succumb to pitbull-like attacks from ministers and officials-on-high who seem to believe “the office maketh the man”. Indeed, even as people read the Guardian report, shocked by its contents and dazed by its implications, the AG went on the offensive, denying culpability, as has become the norm.
It was that report that alerted DPP Roger Gaspard to the stench emanating from the stateroom, telling him that something was rotting in the corridors of power. Gaspard, who has proved to be as fiercely independent and outspoken as his predecessors were, penned a revealing letter to the AG. Dubbing the proclamation of Section 34 “an absurdity”, the DPP gave a timeline of the Administration of Justice Act that gave lie to Cabinet’s belated attempt to extricate itself from some notion of skullduggery.
When the Government was forced—yes, forced—into summoning an emergency session of Parliament to try to rescue itself from the latrine pit it was swirling in, its spokespersons tried to splatter spit on everyone in the chamber. However, except for its core of sycophants, they fooled no one.
It is now clear that there was no need for Section 34 in the Act. The overall legislation, once it’s properly implemented, should serve to speed up the wheels of justice. So why was an altered 34 inserted by Volney during debate in the Senate? And how does Volney respond to the DPP’s statement that he had informed the minister that its proclamation would have bearing on 47 matters, including one of the Piarco cases?
I do not expect Volney to answer any of these very pertinent questions. I do not expect Ramlogan to indicate why he failed to put in place measures he had agreed to before he forwarded the act to the President for assent. And I do not expect the Prime Minister to say who triggered the proclamation, why it was done on Independence Day.
This scandalous episode exposes how the powers-that-be, as transient as they may be, view the relationship between the Government and the governed. We are nothing but spit, they are the spitters. But the tables will turn, one day, one day…