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New year, same Section 34

By Clarence Rambharat

A new year begins today, but old habits die hard. One year ago the Prime Minister was packing her bags for a two-week trip to India. The best clairvoyants could not have seen what lay ahead, even though 2012's mischief of the year was created in November 2011. In 2012, at the mid-year mark, the Cabinet was reshuffled. Soon after, Section 34 warranted another cabinet change, and throughout 2012 old political habits formed new bacchanals.

With last year's baggage still in tow, today's newness may only be symbolic.

Beyond 2012, Section 34 will continue to play a vital role in keeping the country vigilant and reminding MPs that accountability does not arise at election time only. Parliament's work is now televised, proceedings are reported by the media, and many documents and Hansard records are available online. Section 34 has intensified interest and scrutiny.

On the fringe of Section 34's seriousness, former minister of justice Herbert Volney and calypsonian Crazy have a Section 34 ditty. Volney would love to take credit for keeping Section 34 alive, but sensible observers know better. Section 34's prominence is in spite of Volney's "Fall Guy" aspirations, the former minister more likely a candidate for the calypso sobriquet "Stool Pigeon".

Section 34 will be felt for generations. It is difficult to miss the immediate impact, which ironically involved the PM's two new cabinet appointments out of her mid-2012 reshuffle.

On November 20, the Minister of the Environment and Water Resources Ganga Singh laid the seemingly innocuous 24-section Beverage Containers Bill in the Senate. When the Bill reappeared on November 27, there were early signs of trouble with immediate references to Section 34 by Opposition and Independent Senators. Then at one time Minister Singh had to be interrupted by Senator Elton Prescott, SC after the minister referred to the bill in its amended form without those amendments being circulated beforehand or at all.

The next sign of discomfort came after Opposition Senator Al-Rawi's references to Section 34, the lack of consultation with stakeholders, and the short time frame for prior consideration of the Bill.

Independent Senator Balgobin floated the name of a New York-based businessman who had hosted a fund raiser for the PM on her US visit in 2010. The Senator suggested possible links between that businessman, the People's Partnership election victory and the lucrative recycling business to be generated by the Beverage Containers Bill. Minister Singh, a thorn in the PNM's side towards the end of Manning's reign, sensibly got an adjournment of the debate to a date to be fixed.

Even before the Section 34 troubles with the Beverage Containers Bill, Minister Singh's less experienced Senate colleague, Minister of Finance Larry Howai took pre-emptive action by rerouting the Securities Bill through a Joint Select Committee (JSC). Nine days before the lengthy and complex Bill had been laid in the House with a demand to have it enacted into law before the end of 2012.

Minister Howai was obviously forewarned that, after Section 34, this bill would not enjoy Opposition and Independent support, given the short time frame for reading, lack of consultation, and the Government's desire for a quick rubberstamp. The weight and significance of this piece of legislation, over a decade in the making, and coming after the unforgettable global events of 2007 and 2009, and the local collapse of CL Financial and the Hindu Credit Union (HCU), was not reflected in the meagre allocation of time, resources, and regard by the Government.

The Securities Bill ultimately secured valuable Opposition support but the abstention from the final vote by all but one Independent Senators should be more significant than the successful passage of the Bill, which now awaits His Excellency's proclamation. As Independent Senator Helen Drayton said in her contribution before the final Senate vote, "the manner in which this Bill has been tabled, it certainly is not in the interest of the public. It is more than tardy. It is very unprofessional and it is not in keeping with the principles of governance that the Government continues to espouse".

Perhaps the writer of the Crazy/Volney Section 34 ditty would consider putting two verses into reserve in which Volney could lyrically explain something I noted in a previous article (Section 34 sinkholes, September 24, 2012). At the beginning of Volney's contribution in the Senate at 11 a.m. on November 29, 2011, MP Volney spoke of a revised Section 34, without discussing its origin or the public policy considerations behind it. For the next 12 hours to midnight, no Senator referred to a revised form of Section 34. In fact, just around 4 p.m., when Senator Prescott spoke, the Senior Counsel quoted Section 34 in the form it left the House and arrived in the Senate for the first reading. And with both the AG, and Volney closely following Senior Counsel's contribution, neither rose to point out to Senior Counsel that he was quoting Section 34 in the old form.

Why didn't they outline the impact of the Government's revision to Section 34?

In 2013, Section 34 is not merely an academic issue. The difference of opinions amongst Senior Counsel highlights the fluid nature of both politics and facts. Legal opinion can only perform when the facts are ascertained, a matter unlikely to happen voluntarily in politics. What we do know about Section 34 is that the ill-fated section and the events spawned by it will have political consequences.

Hours ago we led 2013 in with Robert Burns' "Auld Lang Syne'', more out of habit than conscious celebration of newness. Our toasts are burdened by the weight of the not so old. If there's any newness in 2013, it will ride on optimism or denial, either of which will have a tough task of ignoring 2012's deeply embedded shrapnel wrought by Section 34 and smaller but pervasive skirmishes.

• Clarence Rambharat is a lawyer and university lecturer

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