Political bacchanal in Trinidad and Tobago
It is difficult to understand, from a distance, what exactly is going on with Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and her People’s Partnership (PP) government in neighbouring Trinidad and Tobago. As they approach the half-way point of their five-year term, the country’s first female prime minister and the United National Congress (UNC)-dominated PP have lurched from one political and public relations disaster to another, successively eroding much of the goodwill that greeted their victory in the May 2010 elections.
The latest “misstep” – to use Mrs Persad-Bissessar’s preferred euphemism – culminated in the sacking last Thursday of the Justice Minister Herbert Volney, a former judge, who was deemed to have “misled the Cabinet” in the Section 34 controversy.
This is the story so far. On August 30, the day before the nation celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence, Section 34 of the Administration of Justice (Indictable Proceedings) Act was proclaimed, thereby affording accused persons a legal avenue to apply to a judge to throw out a case if more than ten years had passed since the commission of the alleged offence and if the trial had not yet started. On September 10, Steve Ferguson and Ishwar Galbaransingh, two UNC financiers charged with bid-rigging and fraud related to the construction of the new Piarco airport terminal between 1997 and 2000, during the term of the previous UNC government, applied to the High Court, along with other accused, to have their cases discharged.
The appearance that the earlier-than-expected proclamation of the Act had been contrived to facilitate the bid for freedom by Messrs Ferguson and Galbaransingh did not go down well with the parliamentary opposition and, indeed, the general public. Worse, it transpired that Mr Volney had not consulted fully with the Chief Justice and the Director of Public Prosecutions as he was supposed to have done and the opposition People’s National Movement (PNM) cried foul, claiming that they had been duped by the government into supporting the Act in its original form back in November 2011, only to see that it had been changed and prematurely proclaimed.
Perhaps the PNM was not as vigilant as it should have been, but the PP government should be given some credit for moving on September 12, reportedly at the insistence of the Prime Minister, to have the Act repealed by Parliament.
The government’s rapid about-turn was no doubt in response to the resultant public outcry and the fact that it had given the PNM serious ammunition with which to stoke the fires of public outrage and mobilise public opinion against the mishandling of Section 34.
Notwithstanding the murder and mayhem occasioned by the attempted coup by the Muslimeen in 1990, some commentators in Trinidad and Tobago would actually appear to believe that the country was experiencing its “darkest hour” in, ironically, its 50th year of independence. This may be a bit over the top but the suggestion that a government or elements within it can be bought is a worrying thought.
Mr Volney’s dismissal on September 20 has not, however, placated the opposition, who also want the Attorney General’s head and have pledged to mobilise the unions and civil society to protest the state of the nation’s governance. Indeed, the government has not been able to assuage the suspicions of the sceptics in the populace, who maintain that there are unanswered questions, such as how could one minister so mislead a Cabinet containing many lawyers, and why was there such unseemly haste in proclaiming the Act. Unfortunately, for Mrs Persad-Bissessar and her government, the whiff of conspiracy hangs in the air.
It is difficult to know, from a distance, where the truth lies, but the PP government seems to have put the ball squarely in the back of its own net. It now remains to be seen how long it will take for the political bacchanal to blow over – perhaps to be overtaken by the next faux pas or by concerns about the 2012-2013 budget due to be presented on October 1. Given the scale of public outrage, however, and the implications for constitutional order, the institutions of the state, the rule of law and all notions of good governance, this particular sore on the country’s body politic may well continue to fester for some time yet.