Politicians, we must concede, whether good or bad, usually march to a different drummer. For most of them, the imperative of winning the next election, no matter how far away the event might be, is like a powerful magnet pulling their actions in a particular direction.
Acting under this impulsion, politicians oft-times produce behaviours which baffle the rational mind and which seek to push the boundaries of acceptable practice to their very limits if not circumvent them altogether. And these are politicians who have some respect for constitutional niceties. As for those to whom constitutional arrangements, conventions and standards are nothing but annoying obstacles to them doing whatever they want whenever they want, their behaviours can, and often become, threats to the democratic fabric of a society.
These ruminations on political behaviour were sparked by reading the news of the unanimous passage in Parliament of certain amendments to the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) legislation. According to Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, who piloted the legislation, the amendments would now place non-regulated businesses under the scrutiny of the FIU in addition to other businesses ranging from real estate to jewelry dealers and banks.
Mr Ramlogan also stated that the amendments would also place public authorities under FIU scrutiny. These, he said, ranged from ministries and their departments to the Tobago House of Assembly, THA executive council and other THA units, regional health authorities, statutory corporations, service commissions and any other entity funded by taxpayers.
In other words the FIU is an institution of serious powers which could reach with impunity into the private affairs of almost every citizen or business. And no doubt this is why Mr Ramlogan was at pains to point out that confidentiality will be tight since any FIU official who disclosed information risked a fine of $250,000 and three years in prison.
Mr Ramlogan's assurances of confidentiality notwithstanding, there are reasons for concern. This country has had the experience of a sitting prime minister come to Parliament and read into Hansard the "private and confidential" medical reports of workers at a State enterprise.
We have also had the experience of another prime minister boasting in Parliament that, given the government's control of Republic Bank after the CLICO meltdown, he now had the power to monitor the bank accounts of the leader of the opposition. It did not seem to matter to him that his statement caused a minor run on that bank.
These are instances where supposedly "confidential" information has been publicly exposed, or threatened to be so exposed, by politicians. The instances where such information has been used by politicians, in a non-public way, for a whole host of illegitimate reasons can only be imagined.
This, of course, immediately raises the issue of the independence of the executive heads of such institutions like the FIU from the political directorate. And the reader would perhaps recall that this very question was a source of public debate about a year ago following the Prime Minister's veto of the person recommended by the Public Services Commission to be Director of the FIU.
But it is not only the FIU which should come under scrutiny as far as the independence of its executive leadership from the political directorate is concerned. Recently we saw questions being raised as to both the process for and the appropriateness of the experience of the person appointed as Governor of the Central Bank.
The point is that there are several institutions and authorities of state whose portfolios and powers are such that it is imperative to the maintenance of democracy that such institutions and authorities should "have sufficient operational independence and autonomy to ensure that they are free from undue influence or interference." In addition to the FIU and the Central Bank one could readily suggest a number of other institutions, including the EMA, which would fall into that category.
In seeking to assure that such institutions have sufficient operational independence and autonomy the power to appoint the executive leadership of these institutions becomes critical. In the case of the Central Bank the Prime Minister has full powers of appointment, in the case of the FIU, while the PSC can recommend, as we have seen the Prime Minister can veto any such recommendation.
The problem here is that while these institutions need to be independent and autonomous of the political directorate it is also true that their operations can, in ways large and small, direct and indirect, affect the political agenda and fortunes of the party in power. Thus the politicians will always have an interest in exercising some measure of control over these institutions.
In this context, therefore, perhaps the time has come for the country to consider a process of appointment borrowed from the United States political system in which, for this select handful of key institutions and authorities, where independence and autonomy for the political directorate must be ensured, the Prime Minister is vested with the power to recommend all such appointments.
The Prime Minister's recommendations however would have to be confirmed by, and can be vetoed by, a standing committee of Parliament charged with evaluating and reviewing the appropriateness of such appointments. One can envisage such a committee being comprised of two government representatives, two representatives from the designated opposition and four independent senators one of whom would be the chairman. The committee would, in its evaluation of any recommendation made by the Prime Minister, be free to hear comments and testimony from any member of the public.
Such a process would satisfy three important considerations. In the first place, the Prime Minister would recommend only such persons as he or she is politically comfortable with. Secondly, the process would ensure that no person is appointed to such a position without scrutiny and who is not at least minimally qualified for the position. Finally such a process serves to insulate the person approved by the committee from the influence of or obligation to, the political directorate.
But as I say politicians usually march to a different drummer and as far as this present lot is concerned please do not hold your breath while waiting to see any such change implemented.
Eid Mubarak to all my readers!
• Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean