The Parliament and President-elect Paula Mae Weekes sent an early optimistic signal on Monday by hosting a brief question-and-answer session with journalists at Parliament’s temporary Tower D, Port of Spain Waterfront home. This is the first time that a President-elect has opened herself to early questions from journalists, outgoing President Anthony Carmona having made himself available only for a photo-op at the formal handing over of instruments from the Electoral College in 2013.
Conducting herself with aplomb, Ms Weekes demonstrated there is no reason to shield high office holders from public scrutiny. Citizens are at a significant disadvantage when appointments are made with no attention to the limited information available—beyond that contained in weighty resumes—to the public.
That disadvantage is even more noticeable when appointees are former judicial officers already protected from the public’s right to know about their background and character. Candidates who move from one cloistered office to another leave the population without even basic information on which to make informed judgments about the quality of people on whose desks critical, far reaching matters of public interest are determined.
The tenure of President Carmona has alerted the population to the important duties and responsibilities discharged in that highest independent office. Incremental learning has resulted in a clearer understanding that the Republican presidency is not a matter of simple ceremony but carries with it grave responsibilities for appointments to public offices on which the pursuit and preservation of democracy depend.
The quality of person nominated and appointed as President, therefore, is a definite matter of public interest.
Ideally, candidates nominated for top national offices should all face public scrutiny before they are confirmed. This is the only way to ensure that the public, over whom these office holders preside and whose lives they affect through their decision-making, is confident that their business will be adequately and appropriately managed. Contained in this open process is the benefit of information and analyses that may not be available to those discharging due diligence.
This is apparent in the controversial nominee for Commissioner of Police submitted by the Police Service Commission (PSC).
Information now being publicised could have better served the national cause had it been known and considered during the vetting process. Similarly, allegations and revelations surrounding the Chief Justice would have been put to a more useful end had due diligence included public disclosures and public feedback at the time of appointment. The same applies to appointments of judges and magistrates, chairpersons of the Integrity Commission and service commissions and the newly-minted Procurement Regulator.
At a time when the public’s demand for transparency and greater openness is increasingly difficult to escape, revisiting the process through which independent offices are populated is similarly unavoidable. The equivalent of the question, who is Paula Mae Weekes, is relevant to too many independent office holders. Parliament’s and Ms Weekes’ willingness to engage with the media is a small mature signpost pointing towards the right direction.