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Presidential accountability

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The recent controversies that have erupted regarding practices, procedures and expenditure at President’s House does not come as a surprise to me. I have consistently raised matters surrounding the discharge of the President’s public duties over the last two years in this column. 

It was clear that once President Carmona assumed office in March 2013, that he set out on a course that could have put him in political and policy difficulties. His famous statement that “powers you think I have I do not and powers you think I do not have I do” placed him on a dangerous path to compete with the politicians for space on the public policy stage where he did not belong.

When we became a Republic (celebrated yesterday) 40 years ago, the intention behind the presidency was to have someone who would function in a quasi-ceremonial office (as opposed to being fully ceremonial). That person would not trespass upon the politically partisan space, while maintaining a discreet distance from political controversy by studiously avoiding comment and/or positions on public policy matters.

As the years went by, from Ellis Clarke to Noor Hassanali, the country seemed to have accomplished that goal until the presidency of ANR Robinson when the politician turned president. What made the Robinson presidency a controversial one was that it emerged out of a political deal which went sour.

Robinson was too close to the Panday premiership to ignore details because he was catapulted from inside the Panday Cabinet into the presidential chair after 15 months in office. It soon became obvious that the political differences between the two were destined to collide and collide they did in 2000 and in 2001.

Robinson introduced the concept of outright presidential defiance of prime ministerial authority in January 2000 when he refused to revoke the appointment of two senators from Tobago on Panday’s advice and again in December 2000 when he refused to appoint seven defeated candidates as senators on Panday’s advice after the general election.

These actions of prime ministerial defiance broadened the elasticity of the presidential remit to a point where the presidency was beginning to resemble an executive one by overriding prime ministerial power with presidential authority. By the time Robinson left office in 2003, the presidency had been reset from its original programming under Clarke and Hassanali.

It was during the term of George Maxwell Richards that the concept of zero presidential accountability was confirmed when he was able to escape the fiasco that he personally created over the exercise of his powers of appointment after consultation in respect of the Integrity Commission in May 2009. The entire commission collapsed in the space of one week after he had made the appointments. He proceeded on vacation leave in the face of the fiasco and addressed it upon his return to office. That entire episode confirmed that the presidency was immune from any kind of accountability and the nation just had to take it.

Enter Anthony Thomas Aquinas Carmona on March 18, 2013, to succeed George Maxwell Richards. In celebrating Palm Sunday mass on March 24, 2013, Newsday reported on March 25 that Msgr Christian Perreira said: “President Carmona showed us very clearly that he was prepared on the first day of his inauguration to take up that cross when he said it is no longer business as usual. We cannot explain our mediocrity, our indiscipline, our violence by saying that we are Trinidadians and accept that is what will continue. People who do not love, people who are incapable of loving, will say ‘we cannot do better’ and we find comfort in saying ‘I is ah Trini and I don’t do this or don’t do that. I don’t come to work early because I is a Trini’.” 

The early remarks of goodwill about President Carmona have been eroded over the years as one controversy after another engulfed the presidency, starting with his omission of the names of Dr and Mrs Rowley from his protocol list at the commencement of his inauguration address and continuing with his housing allowance controversy, then his missing-in-action pre-action protocol letter to comedienne Rachel Price and his numerous public policy pronouncements, and arriving at today’s controversies about expenditure at President’s House.

The weight of the controversies are beginning to get to be too much to bear that range now from the request by the Auditor General’s Office for clarification of certain items of expenditure to the branding of something called Presidential House Wine. 

These controversies all need clarification because in between there are allegations of gardening services at houses other than President’s House and staff appointments based on familial ties.

On February 29, President Carmona told an Integrity Commission regional conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel: “The one with the fatal sting in its scorpion tail is the Prevention of Corruption Act, a piece of legislation that I had input in.”

With such an impressive track record of public speeches on the subject of personal and public accountability, the President’s responses to his own accountability will be keenly awaited.


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