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Another one bites the dust

By Martin Daly

Trinidad and Tobago has undoubtedly suffered badly from the failure of its constitutional and other institutions to fulfill their prescribed roles competently or objectively. As we approach the 50th year of Independence, Trinidad and Tobago is bereft of institutional leadership approaching anything close to the maturity which might come from 50 years of brewing.

The latest institution to make something of a fool of itself is the Police Service Commission, with the result that public confidence in another constitutional institution is biting the dust.

The Commission is the Human Resource manager of the Commissioner of Police and his deputies. Contrary to basic understanding of human resource management, the Commission has given public expression to things about the Commissioner and two of his deputies while they are still in employment, which leads inexorably to the conclusion that their performance is sub-standard. It has also done this when it is far from clear to what standard or to what specific targets, established in advance of their appointments, Commissioner Gibbs and Deputy Commissioners Ewatski and Williams are now being held.

The Commissioner and his deputies are leaders, and in the case of an organisation like the Police Service, they are field commanders. From the moment that the body which sits in supervision and appraisal of them lets any form of discontent with them be known, their authority to lead is compromised. It is simply not possible to blow hot and cold about top managers in any organisation and yet then expect them to perform effectively. It is unacceptable to pander to negative popular sentiment regarding these officers, particularly when such sen- timent is driven by xenophobia or other visceral feelings.

Of particular concern, also, is the fear of judicial review expressed by the Police Service Commission. The business of decision-makers exercising public authority is to be fair and do their best with regard to any decision which they have to make. It is not possible to avoid the process of judicial review if a person who feels aggrieved by the decision of a public authority is determined to bring such proceedings, whatever the merits. To anticipate judicial review with fear rather than with resolution to be fair and competent in the making of a decision can only serve to erode public confidence in any decision which is eventually made.

In mitigation of the legal tangle in which the Police Service Commission finds itself, it must be said that the constitution provisions as amended which provide for the appointment of the Commissioner of Police comprise less than accurate drafting. Several of our institutional tangles result from legislation passed in a hurry to meet some external deadline, or internal political confusion or other partisan expediency. Imperfections in legislation in those situations are inevitable. It is not only the haste which is undesirable but, also, the lack of consultation and receipt of comments from those who might make a valuable input to a more considered process.

Another important factor in institutional failure is the overriding necessity politicians feel that persons to be considered for appointment to these important bodies must be persons who can be trusted to be sympathetic or downright pliable to narrow partisan political objectives. Similarly, some of the choices at the top appear to be aligned with socially prominent groups or comfortable cocktail circuits. Persons who may think outside of social and political allegiances are unlikely to be considered, notwithstanding known competence or track record. Independence of mind is feared rather than favoured.

Depressing though it is, one must keep in mind how poorly we have been served by our important institutions. The President of the Republic has made a series of unfortunate appointments to the Integrity Commission, which is now in such a disastrously weakened condition. Scheming politicians have managed to embroil two chief justices in controversy. It took a State of Emergency and a constitutional amendment to remove a Speaker who was unwilling to yield to the majority who had appointed her. We also had to bear the illegitimacy of a government— chosen for alleged moral and spiritual values—when an election was tied when other creative initiatives should have been explored or a fresh election called immediately.

The disturbing events enumerated above have not led us to any serious attempt to reach a consensus about standards of conduct for high public officials or to heed the cries for another look at constitutional reform. In fact, we suffer continuously and relentlessly the disappointment in each new high office-holder whose conduct displeases the population, relying on a bad precedent of allegedly similar conduct as a complete justification for not improving.

Going forward into the 50th anniversary, we must consider carefully the uncomfortable results of our immaturity, which include the lack of the administration of objective justice throughout the society, low public confidence in the country's institutions and encouragement to the lawless or those inclined to lawlessness.

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