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Monday 23 September 2019
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Revamp the President’s powers

With just days to go before the inauguration of Justice of Appeal Paula Mae Weekes as this country’s sixth President, observers are again weighing in on whether or not the role of the highest office in the land should be revisited in the Constitution. While some insist the office lacks the ability to effect meaningful change, others, like Senior Counsel Israel Khan, believe the status quo must be maintained.

“I see nothing wrong with the constitutional arrangements in relation to the President and the Prime Minister and the Parliament. It is about how they work the office,” he told Newsday.

Political commentator Dr Winford James, however, believes now is the time to look at, and, if necessary, revise the powers of the President to give the office holder meaningful authority to act in the public’s best interest rather than be a mere rubber stamp for the passage of laws and appointments to state boards. He said the Office of the President has not had an impact on the country in a meaningful way.

“I don’t know that the President is as impactful on a democracy as the office should be,” he said.

“I accept the President has functions enshrined in the Constitution and he must, therefore, obey the law.

“But whether the office is promoting our democracy or not is an open question for me. I am one who believes that we need to reform the Constitution and with it, the Office of President.”

James said Weekes’ impending appointment as head of state provided yet another opportunity for reflection.

“People have been expressing reservations about continuing the state of affairs as we have it. On the one hand, we have people who say the President is a ceremonial President mostly, and there are others who say the President has executive functions.”

He added: “But we have felt for some time now that we need not only to change the conditions and the powers vis–a-vis the appointment of a President, we have needed to reform the Constitution and to revise the role of the President within that revised Constitution.”

James observed there has also been some doubt as to the extent of the President’s powers under the Constitution. For instance, he claimed there was an article which gave the Prime Minister a veto of all the President’s powers.

“But at the same time, we know that for the proper function of government we cannot have the Prime minister vetoing every appointment the President makes.

“So you have the President being authorised to do certain things, but at the same time you have the Prime Minister having the power of veto. That is an anomaly. No President in his right mind now would activate a law like that.

“In other words, it will be a bold prime minister who would veto the President’s appointment to the Senate or veto the President’s choice of certain commissioners that he, in his sole discretion, can appoint.”

Saying that aspects of the law are not clear on the divide between the executive heads of government and the President, James told Newsday the President “is supposed to be the highest office but he clearly does not have the powers of the Prime Minister and certainly not in a day-to-day way.”

James also questioned the President’s role as Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces..

“I doubt the President, can, in a political sense, order the army about as a result of that, the extent to which, in an active day-to-day manner, the President can actually acquit himself in the role as head of the army and the Coast Guard.” President Anthony Carmona’s term in office ends on March 18.

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