Two incidents at a function I attended recently made me go back to something I had barely thought of these last few years: our List of Precedence.
Every country has one. It places offices—not personalities—in order of perceived importance, always beginning with the Head of State. Our list was first drawn up in the mid-1960s and, so my research indicated, never officially changed until 2012, nearly 50 years later.
But then, I understand, it was changed twice in rapid succession. I found in my mailbox copies of last year’s two lists. I shall in my next few paragraphs refer to the first list as “A” and to its replacement of November 2012 (the current version) as “B.” I have compared A & B not only with each other but also with lists from Australia, Canada, India and Jamaica that I located on the Internet.
“A” makes provision for former presidents, prime ministers (PMs) and chief justices (CJs) and their spouses. “B” eliminates these categories completely; we have therefore to assume that Arthur Robinson, Max Richards, Patrick Manning, Basdeo Panday, Cecil Kelsick, Michael de la Bastide and Sat Sharma have fallen by the wayside. Yet in the Commonwealth countries mentioned above, provision is made for former governors-general (presidents, in the case of India) and PMs.
As for former CJs, provision is made for them in the Australia and Canada lists.
“A” includes widows and widowers of former presidents, PMs and CJs. “B” casts them totally aside; Mrs Zalayhar Hassanali clearly doesn’t count for anything. But Canada recognises GGs’ widows/widowers, and Jamaica not only does that too but adds the surviving spouses of national heroes. That wouldn’t bother us. We have no heroes; we’re too busy tearing one other down.
“A” places the Attorney General above what it calls “Cabinet Ministers” (of whom the AG is presumably not one); “B” firmly lumps him/her with the others. I suppose the AG was separated from the rest in the first place because the Constitution at section 75 specifically mentions that post, but I would not have thought such mention to be sufficient reason for elevation.
“A” puts the Leader of the Opposition at number 9, the THA Chief Secretary (CS) at 17. In “B”, the CS makes a quantum leap to 7, above the Opposition Leader. Odd, I thought. Whatever powers it thinks it has, the THA—I mean no offence—is essentially still a local government body; even Keith Rowley seems to be hinting in that direction. How, I wondered, could the head of such a body outrank the Leader of the Opposition in the national Parliament?
In Australia, premiers of states (each slightly larger than Tobago, I hear, and genuinely autonomous) are at number 14, the Opposition Leader at 10. In Canada, the provincial premiers are at 11, the Opposition Leader at 8. In India, the State Chief ministers (within their respective states) are together with Union Cabinet Ministers and the Opposition Leader at 7. In Jamaica, the opposition leader is at 3 with the deputy prime minister.
How then did the THA CS come to outrank the Opposition Leader? It was put to me that the Government, anticipating a TOP victory in last January’s THA election, deliberately set out to diss Rowley by placing Ashworth Jack, the confidently-expected new CS, above him.
Nonsense, I replied; no government could be so frivolous as to sacrifice principle blatantly on the chopping-board of party politics and personality. (But just the same, could someone in the know please assure me that it really is nonsense?)
Both “A” and “B” mention the Chief Justice of the CCJ, but both ignore the CCJ judges. How could that be? Is the omission intentional or an oversight?
In this general ambience of protocolary capriciousness, I might mention a Precedence List I received more than ten years ago from the THA. The document is introduced with an assertion: “It is certified for general information that Her Majesty the Queen has approved the appended Table of Precedence for T&T”. Since the Queen ceased to be our Head of State in 1976 when we became a republic, she couldn’t have given her blessing to the Table later than that year. Yet “Presiding Officer” and “Chief Secretary” appear on the Table. But these are terms that came into being only with the passage of the THA Act of 1996, 20 years later! What astonishing clairvoyance from Her Majesty! You understand why Charles has to wait?
The THA list has the CS at number 7 together with Cabinet Ministers. (The Opposition Leader, then Basdeo Panday, is at 14. Another example of the politics of party and personality?) Section 16(1) of the 1996 THA Act states in part that “(t)he salary, allowances and other conditions of service of the Chief Secretary shall be equal to that (sic) of a Minister...” However, my recollection is that the Salaries Review Commission interpreted “Minister” as “Minister of State” (or “Minister in the Ministry of”), not as “Cabinet Minister”. Has this changed?
Ah, protocol. It means a lot in many, probably most countries. It used to mean something here, too. Now it’s strange precedence listings, and chaotic airport procedures, and inappropriate attire at official events, and unsuitable seating arrangements at formal dinners, and so on. And we laugh, without realising how many are laughing at us. Our institutions and our erstwhile commitment to high standards continue to crumble. Those who speak out against this and propose corrective action—happily, our numbers are growing—are dismissed by some elements of the new elite as antediluvian, the very embodiment of intellectual fossilisation. But we shall keep on trying, because we know that a country without robust institutions and healthy standards is no country worth the name.
• Reginald Dumas is a former head of the public service