Straining Section 81
In his campaign against what he alleges to be "criminal conduct" by the cabinet in the premature proclamation of section 34, Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley has sought recourse under Section 81 of the T&T Constitution. This section states:
"The Prime Minister shall keep the president fully informed concerning the general conduct of the government of T&T and shall furnish the President with such information as he may request with respect to any particular matter relating to the government of Trinidad and Tobago."
Under the umbrella of the Section 34 Roundtable, Dr Rowley and his collaborators in the Movement for Social Justice, trade unions and other NGOs must be hoping for better luck the second time around as they seek to gain presidential support for their cause. In response to a September petition from Dr Rowley, then acting President Hamel-Smith claimed to have found no smoking gun in his own investigation.
He replied to the Opposition Leader that, from relevant documentation, only "Herbert Volney, the Minister of Justice, was responsible for matters relating to the passing and proclamation of the act."
Dr Rowley, having rejected Mr Hamel-Smith's finding, appears now to be pushing President Richards to dig deeper, to demand the explanations that Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar had not given to the Parliament, and even to set up an "independent" enquiry into the alleged "criminal conduct" of the Cabinet. All of this he is asking on the basis of Section 81 which obliges the Prime Minister to keep the President informed and to give the President such information as he seeks.
In co-opting Section 81 as an avenue for making the Prime Minister accountable to the President in the Section 34 fiasco, the Roundtable is pushing the presidency into previously unchartered territory. Certainly, there appears to be no precedent for the President, on his own initiative, to set up an enquiry into the Cabinet.
If nothing else, the request from Dr Rowley and his associates would surely have placed the President in a dilemma. On the face of it, for Prof Richards to comply with the Section 34-Roundtable request could plunge the presidency into the messy uncertainties of the political rough-and-tumble. But as President Arthur N.R. Robinson demonstrated during the Panday administration, the very limited powers available to the President under the Trinidad and Tobago Constitution can sometimes be explored to maximum effect. It all depends.
In weighing the Roundtable's request and his own misgivings in being the President who signed the controversial proclamation, President Richards would be expected to consult his legal team very closely. It will be interesting to see whether legal minds can find a route through Section 81 that would satisfy the Opposition Leader's request. For now, the odds do not favour it.
Unlike Mr Robinson, President Richards is not an experienced politician and it would be surprising, at this late stage of his career, if he demonstrated political agility in this matter.