taking the oath: New President Anthony Thomas Aquinas Carmona, left, is sworn in by Chief Justice Ivor Archie.
Carmona keeps promise to do things differently
Ria Taitt Political Editor
President Anthony Thomas Aquinas Carmona delivered a message of change, promising a new way of doing things to achieve “a more progressive and humane society” .”Real change must be invoked,” he said in his inaugural address on March 18.
In fact his attempt to do things differently in his first year in office, the President has tested tradition and even the Constitution. Carmona departed from practice in several important ways: 1) He changed Independent Senators mid-term, unprecedented in the country’s post republican history;
2) His inaugural address and particularly his first address to the Parliament were so sharp that some felt he entered the political gayelle;
3) The President has appointed disabled persons to the Senate—one, Ian Roach was a permanent appointment while another, Dr Singh, was temporary;
4) The President has made controversial appointments to the Police Service Commission which are to be challenged in court.
5) The President has introduced the practice of inviting students to his office when he is receiving credentials from ambassadors or meeting important persons, such as the US Vice President, Joe Biden.
Shortly after his election by the Electoral College on February 16, Carmona became the first President to personally collect his instrument confirming his election by the Electoral College from the Speaker Wade Mark.
In marking this simple change, Carmona observed that a “fresh breeze” was blowing.
That fresh breeze blew loudly as he delivered his inaugural address. “For many years the ship called the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago has left its safe moorings of integrity, accountability, responsibility, transparency and inclusiveness. ... Let me make it clear that being responsible and accountable does not only apply to ‘people in high places’, to ministers of government and other elected officials . ... It is the right and duty of our citizenry to demand that, as leaders, they are responsible and accountable in the exercise of their functions. Yet one cannot justly demand that those in authority be disciplined, responsible and accountable, and not invoke the same standards of conduct in our own daily lives,” the President stated. If we are to establish a better, more progressive, more humane society, real change must be invoked,” he said.
“The manchild is in crisis. ... We as a nation, we, the Parliament of the people, must no longer engage in tired politics,” he said.
The President declared that he did not have a “magic wand”, nor was he an executive president. However, he stressed, the office of the presidency was not impotent. “Under the Westminster form of governance, there are parameters within which I must operate. Powers you think I have, I do not. Powers you think I do not have, I do,” he said pointedly. The crowd which packed the Hasely Crawford Stadium roared its approval. The inaugural address was passionate, spirited and unconventional.
And the President upped the ante when he delivered his first address to the Parliament on August 2. In a notable break with tradition, he used this address to engage his critics. He declared: “ I will not budge from engaging progressive change nor will I be bullied by those who cannot cope with such change. The President’s door will be open to provide access to those outside the corridors of power, influence and contact so that their existence and their desire to serve will not be limited by their seeming anonymity.
“I have a deep respect for institutional memory ... but I also believe in creating lines of succession and, for far too long, with consecutive governments we have the same faces with the same old philosophies and tired ideas. ... This President, much to the chagrin of some, will not engage, figuratively speaking, in the recycling of plastic bottles.”
The President’s statements came amidst questions about his unprecedented decision to change four Independent Senators in the middle of the parliamentary term. All Carmona’s predecessors had waited until the end of the life of the Parliament to make changes to the Independent bench.
Carmona explained his decision this way: “I saw a need to retool the composition of the Independent Bench. I have listened and I have also observed for years the gaps in that composition. Where were the detractors in the last three years, when there was no energy expert on the Independent bench, no person of disability for some 50 years and no internationally-recognised expert and academic in finance? Where were you men and women of letters?” he said.
The President’s statement was not entirely accurate. There had been an energy expert in the person of Basharat Ali for many years until 2012 and there was at the time a finance expert, Subhas Ramkhelawan .
Grabbing several political bulls by the horns, he urged the Parliament to bite the bullet on campaign financing reform, advocated tax reform, called for an end to “pussyfooting” on the Caribbean Court of Justice and appealed for a stop to late night Parliament sittings and the reading of parliamentary contributions.
“Election campaign financing is a veritable juggernaut that results in financiers arrogating political power unto themselves and thereby undermining the system of governance and democracy as we know it,” he said.
The President called for the introduction of appropriate measure for disclosure, reporting and enforcement laws to ensure transparency and accountability in the management of the country’s electoral system.
The Parliament noted that there had long been reports of politicians whose assets did not match the incomes reported on their tax returns. He said there had been a hue and cry for the intervention of the Integrity Commission or the Fraud Squad. But there was another option, he noted. “Why are we taking such a divergent route, when we can wake up that sleeping giant called the Board of Inland Revenue? Rise from your slumber. Do what you are empowered to do,” he told parliamentarians.
On the issue of the Caribbean Court of Justice, he asked: “Why can’t we start believing in ourselves and our competencies? Let there be a vote of conscience, by secret ballot, on whether it becomes the final Court of Appeal, or if as parliamentarians you lack the confidence to make that change, place it before the electorate by way of public referendum on the ballot paper.”
The President addressed the issue of crime, suggesting that laws dealing with parental responsibility must be considered to ensure that the child or the juvenile does not become a criminal because of the recalcitrant parent.
The President also suggested the review of that “dinosaur piece of legislation lacking in vision” which bars anyone under the age of 25 from being a senator.
As he chided parliamentarians for holding late sittings, the President asked: What advantage is there in having issues debated at two and three o’clock in the morning? ... Should major decisions, in this the highest law-making body in the land, be made when the decision-makers are often, barely awake?” he asked. He suggested an 8 a.m. start to Parliament instead of 1.30 p.m.
The President’s off-the-cuff rebuke of Opposition Chief Whip Marlene McDonald for across-the-floor communication during this address did not go unnoticed.
The President’s first year contained a major foreign policy element as two significant international dignitaries visited these shores—US Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill and Chinese President Xi Jinping and First Lady Peng Liyan.
It was a relaxed Carmona who seated next to Biden and surrounded by school children, was able to exemplify how ‘regular guys’ could rise to the highest offices in a nation. Carmona explained why he invited the students to witness first hand the visit of this dignitary.
“It is my way of trying to bring a sense of governance to young people in the country so that they can come to terms with the reality that ambition and hard work can get you anywhere,” the President stated.
The visit of the Chinese President was not without hiccup. There were protocol problems. But it was more a reflection on the Executive than it was on the President. What former diplomat Reginald Dumas described as “protocol lapses” included very importantly an image of the Chinese President walking not with his counterpart, President Carmona, but with Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, and Carmona appearing to be trailing behind.
Former adviser to the Prime Minister, now National Security Minister Gary Griffith also slammed the “protocol blunders”. Griffith said that as a former aide de camp to the President, he was aware that the President was assisted by military personnel, whose responsibility, in collaboration with the Chief of Protocol, was to ensure the President assumes his position in the line.
The President, a devout Catholic, visited the Vatican, along with his wife and two children and had an audience with Pope Francis.
The visit was a first, which led to another first—the appointment of Speaker Mark to act as President for a period of seven days. At the time Senate President Timothy Hamel Smith who is second in line and ordinarily acts for the President, was also overseas. Mark’s stint as President provoked no controversy.
However, the President’s decision to nominate former Independent Senator, James Armstrong and former principal, now attorney-at-law, Raomar Achat-Saney, as members to the Police Service Commission led former head of the public service Reginald Dumas to raise questions.
Dumas’s attorney, prominent QC Karl Hudson-Phillips, in a letter to the Attorney General Anand Ramlogan (and copied to the President, the Opposition Leader and the House Speaker weeks before the House of Representatives debated the nominations) outlined the basis of Dumas’s concerns.
Hudson-Phillips stated that Armstrong and Achat-Saney were unqualified, according to the stipulations of Section 122 (3) of the Constitution. Section 122 (3) states that the President, after consultation with the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition, is required to nominate to the PSC persons who are both qualified and experienced in one of the disciplines of law, finance, sociology or management.
The Queen’s Counsel noted that the curricula vitae of both Armstrong and Achat-Saney demonstrated that they did not satisfy the requirements of Section 122 (3).
Armstrong is a development planner, while Achat -Saney, a former school principal, obtained the Legal Education Certificate in 2012 and was called to the Bar in November 2012, less than one year ago, which cannot, deem her to be qualified in law.
The President stood his ground. The nominations were debated and confirmed by the House of Representatives. And the nominees were appointed by Carmona.
Dumas has announced that he plans to institute legal proceedings against the House of Representatives, challenging its decision to approve the nominations. This action would potentially determine whether Carmona’s nominations were constitutionally sound in the first place.
The President, a former judge, has a stake in this matter. Whether this proves to be a headache for the President, time would tell.
What proved to be the biggest headache for his predecessor—the Integrity Commission—continued to absorb some of the President’s attention.
Carmona’s first major task as President was the selection and appointment of four commissioners to the Integrity body.
The President’s appointment of Sebastian Ventour, Shelly Ann Lalchan, Seiunarine Jokhoo and Deonarine Jaggernauth went without any major hitch.
However, the President found himself facing calls from the Executive to take action against the Commission’s chairman, Ken Gordon, following his controversial meeting with Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley on the eve of the emailgate disclosures in the House of Representatives.
The President did not bow to the pressure to remove Gordon. It was a call to “invoke” change that he was not apparently prepared to accept.