Public trust in PP ‘wiped’ out
By COREY CONNELLY Sunday, September 23 2012
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Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar chats with Legal Affairs Minister Prakash Ramadhar before the press conference she held to announce the firing o...
Already facing heat from several sectors of the society over her administration’s governance, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar on Thursday fired Justice Minister Herbert Volney for his role in the controversial proclamation of Section 34 of the Administration of Justice (Indictable Proceedings) Act, which could have seen businessmen Ishwar Galbaransingh and Steve Ferguson walk free on fraud charges arising out of the decade-old Piarco Airport Development project.
But in an almost immediate response to his dismissal, Volney cried foul, insisting on Friday that he had offered the Prime Minister his resignation almost three hours before he learnt, on the 7 pm television newscast on Thursday, that he had been fired.
“I am very disappointed in being treated this way,” he said in a Newsday interview.
The conflicting statements on the issue have cast a further cloud of uncertainty over the actions which triggered the Government’s decision to have the legislation proclaimed on August 31 (Independence Day). Persad-Bissessar’s decision to fire Volney came weeks after the sacking of former Minister in the Ministry of National Security, Collin Partap, over his alleged failure to agree to a breathalyser test outside of the reopened Zen nightclub in Port-of-Spain, a charge which Partap has since vehemently denied. Bowing to public pressure over the highly-contentious Section 34 issue, which has been regarded a scandal in some quarters, Persad-Bissessar placed blame for the early proclamation of Section 34 of the legislation squarely on the shoulders of Volney, a former High Court judge, in a televised address which some felt, fell woefully short on motive with respect to the Government’s need to expedite the passage of that particular clause at a time when the country was observing its 50th Anniversary of Independence.
In fact, the PM’s long-awaited explanation of the matter did little to minimise the concerns of stakeholders and political observers, with some, including the Opposition People’s National Movement (PNM), calling on Persad-Bissessar to call a fresh general election, two-and-half years into the Government’s five-year term in office. But although Section 34 of the legislation, having been passed in both Houses of Parliament, was repealed two weeks ago, retired head of the Public Service, Reginald Dumas, said Volney’s dismissal over the debacle raised more questions than answers.
Dumas told Sunday Newsday on Friday that although Volney was made the “fall guy” in the fiasco, many people did not believe he acted independently and that Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, the Government’s chief legal adviser, should have also been axed from the Cabinet.
“A lot of people feel that he (Volney) has been made the fall guy for the actions of some people, if not the whole Cabinet and, clearly, it is widely believed that one of those people is the Attorney General. There is, however, no evidence to link the Attorney General to this and, therefore, it would be impossible, logically, to say that the Attorney General should resign or be fired on that basis,” Dumas said.
Dumas specifically noted that Persad-Bissessar, in her statement, said the AG was out of the country for a period of time and that he was not involved in the process of deliberations over the contentious clause.
He said, “The fact is that the Cabinet note was considered on August 6 at a time when the Attorney General was back in the country and must have attended the Cabinet meeting. So the responsibility fell to the Attorney General to say to the Cabinet that he had issues with the legislation. I would like to know what was the advice of the Attorney General to the Cabinet on the night of August 6 before I should say whether the Attorney General should go or not go.”
In the absence of such information and given Volney’s admission of guilt in the matter, Dumas said, however, that he should have resigned voluntarily rather than wait to be fired.
“Volney has admitted that he has misled the Cabinet. The Parliament has already said that he misled them in the sense of promising to come back to the Parliament with certain things before the proclamation of the legislation, which he didn’t do,” he said.
“So, therefore, he appears to have misled both his Cabinet colleagues and the Parliament and within the circumstances he should not have waited to be fired. The honourable option was to resign.”
Realistically, Dumas said he does not believe the firing of the Justice Minister, who remains the St Joseph MP, will enhance the Government’s trustworthiness in the eyes of the citizenry. He added that the Prime Minister will, undoubtedly, have a difficult task in trying to convince the population that her regime had the temerity to fulfil its term.
“I don’t think that this is going to remove the considerable mistrust in the Government that this whole episode, coupled with its various other missteps, has caused,” he said.
“Firing Volney was an essential step in trying to restore trust. But there is a long way to go because a lot of people have abandoned trust and confidence in the Government, and I am afraid that the Prime Minister is going to have a hard road ahead to persuade people that they should place trust and confidence in the Government, especially when questions remain about the role of the Attorney General and the Prime Minister, herself, in this whole matter.”
In his assessment, Dumas also lamented the finger pointing that has taken place within the Cabinet over the Section 34 fiasco.
Referring to comments made by Legal Affairs Minister and Congress of the People (COP) political leader Prakash Ramadhar, who is in charge of the Government’s Legislative Review Committee (LRC), he said, “Cabinet members seem to be pointing fingers at one another. Ramadhar is saying that whoever did this does not deserve to be in Government and that things did not come to the Legislative Review Committee. But the point is that he was sitting in the Cabinet.”
Dumas also argued that the Parliament, generally, must accept some responsibility for the unfortunate development.
“There is also the issue of the role of the Parliament, including the Opposition. They are making a great song and dance, saying they were misled and that Volney promised to come back to the Parliament. He did not come back and, therefore, this was a betrayal of faith,” Dumas said.
“The thing is that Volney was going to come back with certain procedures which would have enabled the legislation to be more easily effected. The question in my mind is that these procedures were not going to affect the substance of the legislation which the very Opposition had already voted for. I would like to know something more about that.”
He asked, “Why did the Opposition and the independents vote for legislation and now come out and say that they were misled because Volney did not come back with certain things?
“The legislation, quite unlike what Volney may have intended to do (with the early proclamation of the clause), had already been passed and voted for by these people. So there has to be an explanation of that.” Dumas also recalled that an independent senator, who, when the matter came to the Upper House for debate, expressed concerns about Section 34 of the legislation.
“But it appears that the senator, nonetheless, voted for the clause. If so, why?” he asked.
“If you have a problem with something and you see there is danger in it, why are you voting for it? So I don’t think that the Parliament and the Cabinet came out of this looking good at all.”
Regarding the fact that the MPs had all voted in favour of the legislation, Dumas suggested that the dilemma pointed to the need for constitutional reform.
He said, “These people were elected by us, all 41, and it may well be that we are not getting the best possible representation when something like this happens because it is clear that they were all at fault. So we come back to the need for constitutional reform.”
Dumas noted that Ramadhar, whom he regarded as “very good at trying to extricate himself from matters”, was in charge of constitutional reform. “But I have not heard a word about any action he has taken,” he added. Volney’s sacking also highlighted the inherent flaws in the structure and functioning of the Cabinet, Dumas contended. “How many notes go to Cabinet on average? Do members of the Cabinet have the time to read all these notes and if there is a voluminous amount of notes going to the Cabinet, the question is, why is this so?”
He also argued that ministers should be given the autonomy to effect certain policies under the purview of their respective ministries without having to receive the sanction of the Cabinet.
“If there is a policy that each ministry has for either education, health or transport, why don’t we have a situation in which the minister executes the policy without having to refer a number of things to the Cabinet?” he asked.
“They should only refer matters to the Cabinet that represent something so exceptional from the existing policy that they feel that the Cabinet should pronounce on it. Other than that, what are you a minister for, why are you pushing everything up? So if it is that this is what is happening, then this is wrong and it means also that the Cabinet is taking decisions and adopting positions, some of which might not be in the best interest of Trinidad and Tobago.”
Political analyst, Dr Winford James, also wondered whether Volney should have been the only minister dismissed over the fiasco.
“I am trying to relate the action to one of collective Cabinet responsibility which the Prime Minister raised recently with respect to another matter,” he said.
“People were expecting more heads to roll, particularly Anand Ramlogan’s head, but the Government kind of exonerated him.” James said Volney’s dismissal highlighted the fact that the Cabinet had no structure in place for verifying assurances given by ministers on pertinent matters relating to Cabinet notes.
“So a note comes to Cabinet and the Cabinet, of course, believes ministers in whose names notes come,” he said. “So one of the things we must note is that there apparently is no double checking of notes, no verification procedure. That is a little unfortunate because you should have a series of checks, especially in this case where two of our very highest offices are involved — the office of the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) and Chief Justice.
“So that may be even further reason for a verificationist kind of approach. So I thought that what has happened here in relation to the notion of collective responsibility is that Volney was made the scapegoat, but there can be no doubt that others were guilty from the point of view of joint collective responsibility.”
Nevertheless, James, senior lecturer in the Department of Education at the St Augustine Campus of The University of the West Indies, noted that the Prime Minister, in addressing the matter, did not explain the haste to proclaim Section 34 of the legislation.
He said, “What she explained was how come the Minister of Justice made it look as if the Chief Justice and the DPP were both consulted on the new clause. But what she did not explain is why the apparently unholy rush to get the President to proclaim the thing? Why take it out for special proclamation? This is what I have to get explained and this is what did not come.”
The analyst said, however, that he was pleased Persad-Bissessar still accepted some responsibility for the blunder. “Her argument, to me, was a strong one except for the unholy rush part of it. She is saying that there is no grand design to favour anybody or to mislead the population. She has two arguments - that the whole Parliament, even the independents and the Opposition, agreed with different versions of the bill.
“If that is the case, how can there be a grand design? She also tried to suggest that the basis for the unanimous support for the clause was that they really wanted to get rid of the backlog and to make the administration of justice more efficient.” James said members of the Opposition and Independent benches also erred in not thoroughly perusing the legislation.
“Members of the Parliament did not read because they did not think they had to read,” he said.
“The Opposition and the independents did not do their work properly either — more particularly the independents, because if you are going to be independent you must be very wary of government. Although in this country, the independents have had a history of almost automatically supporting Government on legislation.”
James, however, does not believe that Volney’s dismissal will significantly affect the future of the Government. “What is a problem somewhat is the fact that nobody else was fired. What is also going to trouble them is that the Government has had to take these drastic steps in just two-and-a-half years. In other words, the Government’s judgement is being called into question because of the series of events.”
He also speculated as to whether Volney’s role in the Cabinet was meant to fulfil a specific purpose.
“Was his entry into the Cabinet at the dictates of the other people who are still in the Cabinet or near to the Cabinet?” he asked. “Was he put there to do what he tried to do and, therefore, is not Volney an expression of something a little more sinister? There are other people involved. We must find out if that is the case.”
In her take of the imbroglio, former Minister of Planning, Social Restructuring and Gender Affairs, Mary King, saw a future role for the Integrity Commission.
“If Mr Volney has used his position as a minister, where he is a person in public life, and Mr Volney has taken to the Cabinet something which was not true and based on what he took to the Cabinet, decisions were made, then Mr Volney was using his position to obviously benefit somebody,” King told Sunday Newsday.
“He did not take that to the Cabinet for no reason and if Mr Volney was using his public office for the gain of someone, whether it’s a friend, political party, ally, or family, then the Integrity Commission has to step in and do an investigation because that is a case of using public office for private gain and that is corruption.”
King, too, was fired from the Cabinet in May 2011, after concerns were raised about the inappropriate awarding of a $100,000 Government contract to a company, Ixanos, in which King’s family has an interest.
Asked if she felt other ministers should have been axed, King declined comment, but said the Congress of the People (COP), the second major entity in the coalition, had a role to play in unearthing alleged wrongdoing within the operations of the People’s Partnership.
“I think it’s common knowledge that the COP came into office on a wave of new politics, better government, changes in the Constitution to control the power of a Prime Minister, and the COP has not been able to effectively bring about any changes, whether it be constitutional changes in this Cabinet and, therefore, the COP has a responsibility to do something to ensure that it happens,” she said.
“We understand that Mr Volney would not have acted on his own and, therefore, that is for the COP members in the Cabinet to ensure that all comes to light.”