Acting President Timothy Hamel-Smith has seen it fit to issue a statement on the Administration of Justice (Indictable Offences) Act, prompted, he says, by a petition presented to him in his capacity as acting President by the Leader of the Opposition. He says that given the dual roles he is required to perform, the other being the President of the Senate, he is uniquely qualified to "reflect" on the many issues that have emanated since the passage of that act, presumably in particular those in the last three weeks, following the proclamation of Section 34, now repealed.
This statement is but one of the many aspects of the fallout of that scandal, which include the firing of Herbert Volney designed to restore public confidence in the Parliament/Government or simply to divert attention. Other aspects are the so-called pre-budget rally, the media blitz by the Government; and on the other side the many interviews with the former minister Volney; statements by members of the Opposition and a blitz of letters to the media as well as commentaries.
In relation to the acting President's statement it seems to me that since we do have an incumbent President who may not share Mr Hamel-Smith's views on the passage of legislation and how this should be done, it would be more appropriate to consider his statement as constituting his personal views as President of the Senate. One must also bear in mind that the President of the Republic has under our Constitution and by convention very little to do with the passing of laws. He is not an executive president.
This is a point that appears to be unappreciated by many members of the public, so-called talk show "hosts" and some politicians.
While the President (like the Queen of England) has the "power" to enact legislation, this power, like the bulk of the powers of our Head of State, can be exercised only through and on the advice of ministers responsible to Parliament, as provided in section 80 of the Constitution. This section provides, "In the exercise of his functions under this Constitution or any other law, the President shall act in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet or a Minister acting under the general authority of the Cabinet, except in cases where other provision is made by this Constitution or such other law…" Thus unless he is specifically given the power in some law the President is required to act in accordance with the advice of the Government: he has no choice.
So while the suggestions by acting President Hamel-Smith might be useful for parliamentary procedure the President of our Republic has little say in the passage or proclamation of laws. Bear in mind that only a small percentage of laws actually need proclamation and this is where the act says that it does; otherwise laws are effective immediately after they are passed by Parliament and signed off by the President.
Under our Constitution the President in his own discretion and sometimes after consultation appoints Independent senators; members of most service commissions; the Chief Justice and a few others. Otherwise he has a couple of individual powers that could cause a political crisis when exercised.
One is if the Prime Minister loses a vote of no confidence in the House of Representatives and does not resign or ask to dissolve Parliament within seven days the President may revoke his/her appointment. Some say this was the reason that Mr Manning dissolved Parliament in 2010 – because he feared the vote of no confidence by the then Opposition.
The President also has the right to choose the prime minister: a formality in the case of a clear majority. This however is potentially controversial after an inconclusive general election such as occurred in T&T in 2001 when for the first time in the English-speaking countries, with the Westminster system of government, the Head of State had to make a personal decision as to which head of two competing political parties was in the best position to receive the support of the majority in the House of Representatives. History will record what ensued after that fateful decision of December 2001, when President Robinson dismissed the advice sent to him by then minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
Other than the above all the President can do à la the Queen of England is to warn or advise a government on any proposed course of conduct. If they refuse to heed his advice he can delay acting — but in the final analysis he has to do as the Government wishes.
On another note I see the PM has announced the removal of VAT from some food items from November 15. The Express headlines last Sunday shouted "No VAT on food".
If this was an attempt to appease the population in a "People's Budget" it is of little weight. As was pointed out by at least one enterprising reporter most food items are already zero-rated and have been for years starting with the Kuei Tung budget of 1997.
At present there is no VAT on unprocessed food as well as rice, flour, milk and its products, pasta, all types of tinned fish (sardines, tuna etc); bottled water, toiletries, cooking oils, corned beef, ketchup, mustard, grapefruit juice — just to name a few. Will removing VAT from pigtails, local fruit juices and tinned peas really make a difference to our food bills?
As for the Government plan to engage in more "Government" broadcasting in Government media to begin with — I thought that kind of activity was frowned upon in this day of liberal journalism and by all countries aspiring to first world status. This proposal more than anything else speaks to a kind of desperation on the part of the Government.
• Dana S Seetahal is a