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Lifting government’s veil of secrecy

Published: 
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
TONY FRASER

Maintain secrecy in government at all cost; but call Justice Sebastian Ventour all kinds of names for blowing the whistle on the lack of thoroughness in the investigation of the Integrity Commission into the Emailgate affair. That has been the preoccupation of those who want to retain the ability of government and the bureaucracy to hide dishonest and corrupt dealings away from the population.

Secrecy in government is a matter that has attracted quite an amount of attention in North America and Europe. Scholars in government and politics, law professors, journalists and ordinary folk take varying positions. Those who want to retain the culture of keeping information away from the population are depending on the traditional arguments of not releasing sensitive information that could endanger national security interests. A campaigning Barack Obama promised the most transparent administration ever. The reality, state the analysts, is that Obama’s government has denied a record number of freedom of information requests. The CIA, KGB and other agencies have killed millions in secret.

The contention here has been the need to keep agreements with multi-national corporations secret to protect the country’s commercial interests.

An informed public is the most potent weapon of all restraints on misgovernment, corruption, nepotism and the like is the counter of those who are against government being given the latitude to operate like secret societies. The fact is that the active and effective participation by citizens in government must be based on information. In the T&T case, the absence of solid information on government decisions and dealings is one reason why large chunks of the electorate fall back on race and party fanaticism to decide on which party to vote for. And that is logical: if the voter does not have information to analyse the performance of government and opposition, then on what basis will he/she decide, if not race and “I is ah PNM till ah dead;” or “Is we time now?”

Recently, Justice Frank Seepersad ordered Planning Minister Bhoe Tewarie to release information on legal advice given with regard to the Invaders Bay project. The Minister’s response was to the effect that that was privileged information between client and attorney. Who is the client paying the attorney’s bill?

Both the Government and the Opposition have not moved one inch towards legislation to make transparent the funding of election campaigns by big business investing in future contracts. Notably, the business community has been silent on this matter, preferring to continue making secret blue chip investments in parties/governments.

The population is yet to know the truth behind the matters pertaining to Calder Hart; about state gifts to the spiritual advisor of former Prime Minister Patrick Manning. For decades succeeding PNM governments hid the price at which it sold gas to the multinationals. In the present, secrecy has clouded the truth about Reshmi Ramnarine; when the media questioned the PM said “move on.” Section 34 covers a wide range of issues, the silence is pervasive. There are stories yet to be uncovered in the Emailgate affair, including the most recent revelations of Justice Ventour.

When he was minister Jack Warner told a reporter, who dared to ask who was responsible for paying American basketball superstar, Shaquille O’Neil, for coming here, that it was private business. There was a similar response on leased state lands to SIS. Billions in contracts have been awarded in secret to private firms.

So, voting a new government into office; “no big thing” for the electorate here since the People’s National Movement was dumped in 1986. But transformation of the system of government has proven to be an altogether impossible objective. Indeed, root and branch transformation, constitutional reform, conscientisation of the society can only happen through the elimination of institutional secrecy: people have a right to know about their affairs.

The history of the last 80 years in T&T has included two full-blown attempts at transformation. The movement of labour in the 1930s (and that movement could be stretched further back to Cipriani and the waterfront workers of the early 1920s) was an attempt to achieve social justice, economic reformulation and human-hood. That was a fundamental awakening; it moved the society forward.

The 1970 social revolution sought to assert the right of the Afro and Indo-Trinbagonians to economic independence and social justice. There was a measure of institutional change inclusive of opening the doors to employment of Indos and Afros in institutions such as the banks and other parts of the financial sector. One other element of the attempt at fundamental change was the cultural awakening of Indos and Afros; they came to appreciate and value the ancestral cultures. So too did the society become self-assured to explore the cultural creations made in the Caribbean.

What Dr Eric Williams and his colleagues did was to fashion the constitutional and administrative framework for governance in the post-colonial period. There is now need for removal of the secrecy that hangs over the operations of government to allow for meaningful participation and meaningful change.

President Anthony Carmona must inform the society on the Integrity Commission’s Emailgate investigations. 

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