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Courting the Executive Presidency
As the presidency of this country moves inexorably towards a greater level of political activism by holders of the office, the question must be asked whether the constitutional and philosophical foundations of our political system are being shifted from Westminster to Washington.
The Standing Orders of the House of Representatives contain the following provisions at subsections (8), (9) and (10) of Section 36:
“(8) Her Majesty’s name or the Governor-General’s name or the Governor’s name shall not be used to influence the House.
"(9) The conduct of Her Majesty and members of the Royal Family shall not be called in question.
"(10) The conduct of the Governor, members of the Senate or the House of Representatives, or of judges or other people engaged in the administration of justice shall not be raised except upon a substantive motion moved for the purpose; and in any amendment, question to a minister, or debate on a motion dealing with any other subject any reference to the conduct of any such person as aforesaid shall be out of order.”
Since becoming a republic, wherever the word “Governor-General” appears it is to be substituted by the word “President”. The reality is that the foundation upon which our parliamentary standing orders was laid had a connection to the Westminster-Whitehall model that recognised the Governor-General as Her Majesty’s personal representative in the context of Trinidad and Tobago being a monarchy.
The shift to a republican form of government in 1976, whereby the monarchy was abolished and replaced by a quasi-ceremonial presidency, brought with it a reliance upon a particular type of political behaviour from the people who would hold the office of President.
The Governor-General had always adopted a politically neutral role in the manner in which public duties were performed, primarily because he was functioning as the personal representative of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Trinidad and Tobago.
With the abolition of our monarchy in 1976 and the transfer to our presidency, we have witnessed a gradual alteration away from the trappings of Westminster-Whitehall monarchy and the embrace of elements of the Washington-model presidency.
Evidence of this can be seen in the gradual conversion of the former throne speech into a state of the union address at the opening of Parliament whereby the President no longer reads a speech written for him by the Prime Minister outlining the proposed legislative agenda of the Government for the coming year.
Instead, the President now makes politically-charged statements that are more befitting an executive presidency than a quasi-ceremonial one who bears no political responsibility for his actions and also enjoys legal immunity.
There is no longer a debate on what used to be the throne speech which would have resulted in a vote on the speech to confirm that the Government had the support of a majority of parliamentarians to pursue its legislative agenda. Instead, the speech by the President has traditionally been adopted as a House Paper and, therefore, forms part of the official records of the Parliament.
If the President is going to make politically challenging statements that directly impugn the performance of ministers of government, then he ought to become the subject of political attack as he is the one who has trespassed into an area where he had no right to go in the first place.
He cannot expect to descend from the lofty perch of the presidency into the arena of the politicians and fire his salvos at them and then run back up to his perch and hide behind protective provisions in the standing orders that were designed to protect the Queen, the Governor-General and members of the Royal Family.
The Queen and the Governor-General would never engage in such politically incorrect behaviour because they know that they do not carry ministerial responsibility for their positions. The political behaviour that has come to be associated with the office of the President in the period after Noor Hassanali demitted office has left a lot to be desired.
The intent of the standing orders can no longer realistically be applied to partisan behaviour out of the office of the President without pressure being put on the ability to sustain the perception of neutrality of the office. As it stands now, this presidency has become mired in political controversy because of the actions and deeds of the office holder and more recently, the acting office holder.
It was this type of political behaviour that would have led the former prime minister, Patrick Manning, to conclude that Trinidad and Tobago was fast approaching the point where an executive presidency would have to be considered as part of the constitutional reform process. To this end, the current Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, has also spoken favourably about the need to consider an executive presidency for this country.
We cannot continue to have a presidency that enjoys no political responsibility together with full legal immunity being permitted to go around the country making politically controversial statements and expect him to be regarded as neutral. That is a fallacy.
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