The inaugural address of our new President, His Excellency Anthony Thomas Aquinas Carmona, has been greeted far and wide with acclaim. Perhaps the population was energised by the passion and obvious sincerity which characterised the delivery of the President, not common on such occasions. Perhaps it is the fact that he is seen as a man of the people who is on speaking terms with persons of all designations: lawyers, politicians, calypsonians, schoolchildren—the highest to the lowest. Whatever the reason, the fifth President at this time is popular with and liked (if not loved) by all.
Yet he himself recognises, as he put it, "that goodwill can be nebulous and can dissipate if expectations are not realised or not realised expeditiously". The President is clearly conscious of the fact that there are great expectations, perhaps fuelled by his very popularity, that he will provide not only leadership but solutions to some of the current ills of our society. He attempted to sound a warning: I am not an executive president; there are parameters within which I must operate.
Then came the much-quoted statement, "Powers you think I have, I do not. Powers you think I do not have, I do." Naturally the crowd roared with approval at this statement. But what powers does the President have that we do not think he has?
Immediately after the above statement, His Excellency quoted Section 81 of the Constitution as one aspect of his "constitutional clout". He made it clear that that section mandates the Prime Minister to keep the President fully informed of the general conduct of the Government and, at the President's request, to submit information with respect to any matter relating thereto.
The President promised, "It is a dialogue mechanism that will be invoked affirmatively for the good of the Republic."By this the President must at least mean that he will ensure that he will be kept "fully informed" of what the Government is doing and ask questions about any other matter.
Interestingly, however, he followed up this assertion with almost an invocation when he stated that as President he has a wide remit as he has sworn "to preserve the Constitution and the law" and to devote himself to "the service and well-being of the people" of Trinidad and Tobago. He promised to do this without compromise or reservation, holding fast to the following fundamentals: "integrity, transparency, inclusiveness, accountability and reverence to God Almighty".
One might be tempted to interpret the juxtaposing of the two assertions to mean that in requiring information from the Prime Minister, His Excellency might well consider his remit to include knowledge of any matter that could affect integrity, transparency, or accountability. This was a thread running throughout his entire address as he dealt with what he said would be the mandates, our national watchwords, discipline, production and tolerance.
In the past presidents have complained quietly—or in the case of President Robinson, aloud—that the Governments of the day have not honoured either the spirit or content of section 81. In the last year or so letters have found their way in the press passing between the last President and the Prime Minister on what section 81 entails and requires. It will be interesting to see what happens when our new President seeks to invoke the dialogue mechanism, albeit for the good of the people.
The Constitution in Section 81 speaks to the President being "kept informed". If President Carmona is informed about a matter or proposal about which he has reservations, given that he is not an executive president and, by virtue of Sections 75 and 80 of the Constitution, in general acts on the advice of Cabinet, what can he do?
During his tenure, Mr Robinson held fast to what he perceived as the rights of a non-executive president, akin to that of the British monarch, to "warn, advise and delay". Might these have been some of the powers to which current President Carmona referred? Only time will tell.
There are other powers of the President contained in the Constitution itself which have not been fully utilised by office-holders. Specifically in reference to the powers of appointment to independent offices such as the service commissions, Election and Boundaries Commission and the Chief Justice (among others), the President has the power to appoint whomever he wants, having consulted with the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition.
Too often in the past this need for consultation has been interpreted to mean there must be consensus in whomever is appointed—or at least agreement by the Prime Minister. This is clearly not what the Constitution says, and such an interpretation detracts from the power of a President.
There is one known power of the President which he exercises in his own discretion—no consultation with anyone is required. That of course is in the appointment of the nine Independent senators to the Senate. These senators often have a critical role to play in ensuring good legislation emerges from the Parliament.
When a bill comes from the House of Representatives to the Senate the Government is mindful that it has only 16 senators out of 31 and the 16th is the Senate President—who will not usually vote on the passage of legislation. Thus the Government will seek to persuade the Independents that the bill should become law, since very often the six Opposition senators might strategically all be voting against the law. The role of an Independent senator, therefore, is critical and the President who appoints them must be mindful of that.
Finally, the Constitution provides that after its passage through Parliament, to become law a bill must be assented to by the President. The President, when the bill is presented to him, may assent or withhold his assent. The latter could clearly constitute the best bargaining tool for a non-executive President.
• Dana S Seetahal is a former