In her statement to the nation on the early proclamation of Section 34 of the Administration of Justice (Indictable Proceedings) Act of 2011, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar revealed that she and her government had erred in proclaiming the section since it had not benefited from consultation between the Executive and the Judiciary (in the form of the offices of both the Chief Justice and the Director of Public Prosecutions) as the Executive had been misled into believing it had by Justice Minister Herbert Volney.
So she apologised to the people of Trinidad and Tobago, the President, the Parliament, the CJ, and the DPP—everybody, then—and fired Volney.
In acting as though Volney's dismissal was the solution, she did not go far enough. She framed the problem well enough – the passing by the entire Parliament, that is, both House of Representatives and Senate, of a bill whose "consequences and far-reaching implications was (sic) not consistent with government policy"—but she provided the wrong solution. And she failed to explain why there was a rush —on Independence Day, good grief!—to proclaim the section.
Let's be clear. KPB fired Volney, not for the early proclamation of the Act, but for misadvising Cabinet that he had consulted with the DPP and CJ on the offensive section. And in his response to the actual early proclamation, it is instructive that the CJ was concerned, not that the narrowing of the time period would offer offenders a window of escape from prosecution, but that early proclamation would catch the Judiciary unprepared, in terms of infrastructure and staffing, to administrate the Act.
And yet, we have these astonishing admissions from KPB:
i) "Cabinet agreed to the prior partial proclamation of Section 34 as a prelude to the proclamation of the rest of the Act."
ii) "Early proclamation should never have occurred" (my emphasis).
Now, if Cabinet agreed to an Act that should never have occurred, why would KPB punish Volney for misrepresentation but not punish the rest of the Cabinet for coming up with the idea of early proclamation in the first place?
In her statement, KPB pointed out "two important constitutional principles" on which procedure in Parliament is based: ministerial responsibility and collective Cabinet responsibility for decisions taken. But Volney was fired for violating his ministerial responsibility while the rest of the Cabinet got away scot-free for taking a decision that should never have been taken in the first place.
Which, you might want to ask, is the greater transgression?
In making your choice, you might want to go back to a curious statement made by KPB—her first 'fact': 'The Bill approved by the LRC [Legislative Review Committee] and Cabinet did not contain the version of Section 34 which was eventually approved and passed by both the Lower and Upper Houses.'
What does she mean? That some mischief happened to the Bill after Cabinet had approved it? That someone—perhaps Volney?—adjusted Section 34, and the rest of the Cabinet, as well as the Opposition and the Independents, who would not have known of the Cabinet Bill, blissfully supported the new section unawares?
Does this mean that after the members of Cabinet are done with a Bill, they do not bother to check the draft in their other role as legislators/parliamentarians? And, to go back to Volney's misrepresentation of the CJ and the DPP, are there no structures in the government for verifying the notes that individual ministers bring to the Cabinet? Is taking a minister at his word sufficient for good governance in this regard?
It seems clear that firing Volney is not going to solve the twin problems of the Cabinet-dominated Parliament passing law that is inconsistent with government policy and the Cabinet not bothering to verifying assurances brought to it by individual ministers.
Those problems will remain as long as the people in their various motivated groupings—teachers, oilfield workers, bus drivers, the Law Society, NGOs, CBOs, etc—are not involved as a matter of fact in the legislative process to constrain the actions of the executive/Cabinet.
They will remain as well as long as the Executive/Cabinet, for all intents and purposes, is indistinguishable from the Parliament, as Dr Rowley's protestations about trusting the Cabinet to do the promised right thing so strongly suggest.
Poor Volney. He was sacrificed for nothing. Really.
But why the rush, KPB?
—Winford James is a UWI
lecturer and political analyst