Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Ralph Maraj's 'Our hollow head'


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In the Express of January 21, Ralph Maraj, former government minister, wrote a column titled "Our hollow head", in which he launched a scathing attack on the Trinidad and Tobago presidency and the men who have served as president. Our presidents are cardboard figures, he contends, who are selected, not elected. Except for ANR Robinson, he says, the others have been "unremarkable". He compares them to the British queen, asking, "How could that poor lady have survived 60 years of being a cardboard monarch?" But once Mr Maraj had taken his cheap shots, he walked away, satisfied with the hatchet job he had done, leaving the reputations of some of the most outstanding patriots we have been privileged to have here on the floor. In doing so, he also left us somewhat unenlightened.

But Sir Ellis Clarke, Noor Hassanali, ANR Robinson and now Max Richards have been model citizens, who had the gravitas required to hold the job and who all took it for what it is—national selfless service of the highest order. What in his own right does this former government minister bring to the table to allow him to publicly disparage men of this calibre?

We expect a former minister of government who puts pen to paper on a critical constitutional matter to come to us with more than a rum-shop approach, reducing the presidency to some kind of CEPEP job in which the incumbent has little challenge. How does it help our understanding of this issue to see Max Richards, former principal of UWI, associated just with a statement he made about Carnival? To see Noor Hassanali, a former appeal court judge, reduced to the single act of tying the laces of a schoolboy; or Ellis Clarke, the prime author of our constitution at independence, reduced to being just the glass-knocking life of the party?

Trinidad and Tobago is but one of many countries in the world that have opted for an approach to governance that includes both a prime minister, as head of government, and president, as head of State. Among former Commonwealth countries where we see this approach are India and Singapore. In India, the president is elected not directly by the people, but through state representatives and members of parliament. In Singapore, since 1993, the president is elected by the people. In both India and Singapore, the role of the president is ceremonial. But ceremonial does not mean menial. Both of these are multi-ethnic countries where it matters to have a solid apolitical, non-partisan figure as a sort of national umpire who can be expected to bring some integrity to calls he makes when there is an appeal by members of the public. Other major Commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand have opted to remain answerable to the Crown, through a governor general, who is the ceremonial head of state.

Outside of the Commonwealth we see the principle of distinction between the head of government from the head of state continue. Israel, for example, has just held elections in which Benjamin Netanyahu will remain prime minister. Shimon Peres has been the country's president. It is notable that he is also a former prime minister of Israel. The role of president in Israel requires an elder, in the best sense of that word—a wise person respected by all in the village, who when it really matters will be perceived to be fair. In Israel, the president is appointed by the Knesset, which reflects a multiplicity of political parties. That a former prime minister would accept the job tells us it cannot be measured with the same metric as other jobs, as Mr Maraj seems to suggest. What is critical is that the president be in the loop of power.

In France, we see a different take on the separation of roles. The French president is elected by the people and becomes the head of state. Thus in April of last year, President Francois Hollande won at the polls, succeeding Nicolas Sarkozy. This made Hollande head of state. He then appointed Jean-Marc Ayrault as Prime Minister and head of government the next day. In France, the president appoints the prime minister without approval from the legislature. It's understood to be a political appointment. The president of France is the holder of the power. In practice, he functions almost like a foreign minister, with a high global profile. The president of France these days could be seen standing with the chancellor of Germany in European capitals, helping to make decisions about monetary stability. Meanwhile, the prime minister of France runs the government day to day.

So one of the questions we can ask is whether there is need in this country for us to look again at the role of the president. Or should we look again at what kind of constitutional arrangement best suits us? As we look across the Caribbean at our neighbours, we see variety in their constitutional arrangements. In Barbados and Jamaica, we continue to see constitutional monarchies with governors-general representing the queen. In Guyana, we see the executive president, with the prime minister and president rolled into one. Here at home, we have a republican constitution with a president. Perhaps we need to look again at the role to see how it might be augmented, and we could start by asking those who have been president to offer suggestions for its modification. Further, we could put together a grouping of people who could arrive at some recommendations as to how the role could be augmented. They could examine models from abroad to see which feature with some affinity with our plural nature.

But the fact that we struggle as a country with how best to conceive of the role of president cannot be an occasion for us to take cheap pot-shots at those who have served us in the role. Ralph Maraj as a former minister should know better than to disparage our presidents. If he has ideas about how to improve the role, he should say so. But as it stands, he seemed short of constructive ideas.

• Theodore Lewis is a

professor of education at UWI.