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The plot to pervert Parliament

By Afra Raymond

We have witnessed two constitutional outrages. We have to keep our eyes on the ball in this season of mass distractions. For the Government, there is every reason for us to 'move on' and forget about these deliberate violations of our Constitution.

The first was the State of Emergency — declared on August 21, 2011 — with no proper reason ever being given for the suspension of our constitutional rights. All the persons arrested were poor people, all of whom had to be released for lack of evidence, in a situation where the police had the complete freedom to search for evidence. But what is worse, the suspension of our constitutional rights was not used to gather evidence against the white-collar bandits who have this nation by the throat. That state of emergency would have been an ideal opportunity to gather evidence against this most evasive, well-advised and malodorous class of criminal.

The second was the Section 34 scandal — on August 31, 2012 — which I have called the "Plot to Pervert Parliament". This abuse of our legislative process allowed high-profile white-collar criminals to escape justice.

It was an abusive double-attack. So how do we speak the truth to power?

According to Abraham Lincoln "…Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power…"

These scandals continue to echo in the minds of so many people that it is only a matter of time before we have a thorough public enquiry. We must record who abused their office. Also, we need to remember clearly, who are these apologists who are now insisting that nothing big happened and in any case, it is all over.

On Thursday 20th September, the Prime Minister spoke to the nation about the Section 34 scandal — see http://www.news.gov.tt/index.php?news=11724. That was a memorable address which placed the blame squarely with then-minister of justice Herbert Volney, whose dismissal was then announced. Quite likely the administration thought that would have been the end of the scandal.

The blogosphere has been ablaze with e-mails from one Herbert Volney — sometimes he claims that he is angry and betrayed; other times he is still devoted to the Prime Minister; then again he is critical of the new Minister of Justice and wants to be re-appointed; he is wrongly identifying people in the public eye. It is like having a ringside seat at the implosion of a grown man.

One thing for sure is that Volney does not seem happy to continue taking all the blame for Section 34. So that means the complete collapse of the official version on Section 34, which was that the minister of justice was largely responsible. It was always a doubtful strategy to build a case on the weakest strand of reasoning, but necessity is the mother of invention.

Some of the many unanswered questions must include:-

• The quiet shift — Somewhere between the Lower House and the Senate the meaning of Section 34 was changed so that instead of a 10-year period from being charged, accused persons could apply to the court to be discharged 10 years after allegedly committing the offences. That was a huge shift in favour of those accused of white-collar crimes. So what was the real reason for changing the law? No one has ever said.

• The parliamentary assurances — We hear about public and private assurances over the proclamation of Section 34. It is unacceptable that some assurances are never recorded in Hansard. All assurances must be registered, given the ongoing decline in the ethical standards of our Parliament — does anyone remember Volney's insulting and bizarre "apology" to the CJ early in his ministerial career? An enquiry must place those assurances onto the record so that the public can be informed.

• Did the President seek or receive legal advice before signing-off on Section 34? If he did, what was that advice? If he did not, should he have taken legal advice?

• Having determined that Volney was to blame, did the Prime Minister enquire why he committed those acts of gross misconduct in public office? If the Prime Minister did enquire, what was Volney's reply? If the Prime Minister did not enquire, we have every right to be sceptical about the entire official version.

• We are now seeing that the agreed pre-conditions for Section 34 are not in place, so why the early proclamation? Was this just a "get-away-from-justice" card for the Piarco Airport accused?

• The President's request to the Prime Minister for a report under Section 81 of the Constitution has now sparked a new wave of claims. Where does the truth lie?

The way the politics plays in our country, I think that it is a good thing that we no longer seem to be on a march to any early election over Section 34 or anything like that. The political culture here is such that if the People's Partnership had won an early election called on this issue, however slight the margin of victory, we would have been decisively told to "move on", as the electorate had spoken. This is exactly how a lot of the political nonsense endures.

We are now in a position to demand that the Government put some serious effort into answering the many genuine questions which are buzzing on this issue. An independent examination of the facts would be a start.

Learned, lying leaders are the bane of our country. No public official in our Republic can be above review, not even the Prime Minister or President. Our upcoming discussions on constitutional reform must balance these questions.

• Afra Raymond is a commentator on public matters; this discussion is also hosted at www.afraraymond.com

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