The tenure of President Anthony Carmona has highlighted, more than any other president in our history, the problematic nature of this anachronistic office amid a modern democracy. As the new year dawns and the Electoral College prepares to meet next month, it is essential that our elected officials select a viable replacement in a manner that does not do more damage to the post than has already been done.
Carmona’s presidency was marked by his own brand of politics. While he regarded himself as an activist president bringing modernisation to the post, his actions were, upon closer scrutiny, grave threats to our democracy.
The president delayed assent of the Strategic Services Agency (Amendment) Act 2016 in order to engage in his own review of the legislation which had been passed by the Parliament. While that law – which was finally proclaimed last October – was controversial, there is nothing in the Constitution that suggests the President was within his powers in choosing to frustrate the will of the democratically-elected Legislature.
“Powers you think I have, I do not,” Carmona famously declared in his inaugural speech. “Powers you think I do not have, I do.” Time and time again he set out to follow the latter declaration as if it were his own political mandate.
After delaying the assent of the SSA legislation, the President added insult to injury by convening a meeting with Minister of National Security Edmund Dillon. Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley raised objection but Carmona remained defiant. He held a media briefing in which he claimed he had informed the prime minister on three occasions about the meeting and that the prime minister supported it.
“We were lied upon viciously,” Carmona said. Still, he remained in office.
Carmona’s way of doing things managed to offend all sides of the political divide. He even fell out of favour with Kamla Persad-Bissessar whose administration had installed him in 2013.
Shortly after taking office, Carmona refused to fire the chairman of the Integrity Commission, Ken Gordon, when asked to do so by Persad-Bissessar. A secret meeting between Gordon and the then Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley at Gordon’s private residence had come to light. The President said he had a duty to stay out of politics.
Yet, it was politics that he seemed to live and breathe. On one occasion, Carmona excoriated MPs, calling on them to sit at more sensible hours and to work better at passing legislation. Though his post is subject to Cabinet, he also waded into foreign policy matters, such as relations with Venezuela.
The next president must be a person who understands the powers Carmona did not.
And the process of appointment of this official should not become enmeshed in politics. We’ve had enough of that from President’s House already.