Thursday, February 22, 2018

President must explain


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President Max Richards invoked Section 81 of the Constitution and wrote to the Prime Minister, provoking it back to life. From the beginning, when Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley had implored the President to invoke Section 81, the strategy had seemed a long shot. As the elected representative of the people, the constitutional balance of power in this republic is on the side of the Prime Minister. As a non-elected head of state, the President functions somewhere in the buffer zone of power between the ceremonial and the institutional.

While the President has not divulged details of his letter to the Prime Minister, one assumes that having acted under the authority of Section 81, he has asked the Prime Minister to "furnish" him with certain details related to how Section 34 arrived on his desk for his signature of proclamation.

Predictably, the Prime Minister has responded by pointing to information already furnished to acting President Senator Timothy Hamel-Smith who was in the presidential hot seat when the Section 34 fiasco erupted.

It is not known what level of communication, if any, occurred between Senator Hamel-Smith and President Max Richards during the acting President's probe. But, as the one to have affixed his seal to the proclamation, President Richards would have a vested interest in getting to the bottom of this still unresolved issue.

While it may be a long shot, the President's resort to Section 81 as an avenue for gaining greater clarity on an issue that has struck at the heart of our democracy, is worth exploring. This is important if only to evaluate the effectiveness of the processes between the cabinet and the Office of the President, and within the President's office itself so as to protect the nation from future blunders of such catastrophic proportions as Section 34.

The case of Section 34 was one in which every check and balance failed to protect the public interest. Given the limited oversight powers of his office, the President is entitled to employ whatever means are available to him to get to the root of any matter that troubles him.

Unfortunately, in this case he chose not to explore Section 81 until the Leader of the Opposition pointed out its scope. Given the highly politicised nature of this issue, the President should tread carefully, especially since both Government and Opposition have seized hold of his intervention in a battle for public opinion and could create the danger of projecting him as a participant in politics.

As the one player in this imbroglio that we are yet to hear from, perhaps President Richards should explain why he has now chosen to ask the PM for information on Section 34, as it seems to be sudden and out of the blue coming more than two months since the then acting President gave his findings.

According to Senior Counsel Dana Seetahal, the President has to act in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet and can't take any action on his own in relation to Section 34. After the President completes the exercise initiated under Section 81, the public should expect a full statement from him. Hopefully, it would shed light over the lingering darkness of Section 34.