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The Senate President And The Presidency
The recent call by the Leader of the Opposition, Dr Keith Rowley, for there to be constitutional reform to change the arrangements whereby the President of the Senate acts for the President of the Republic has raised a fundamental issue.
In 1976 when the republican constitution was introduced, it must be noted that the genesis for the constitutional provision for the President of the Senate to act as President of the Republic came from the Wooding Constitution Commission as follows: “We recommend that there should be a vice-president. He shall act for the president when the latter is unable to perform the duties of that office but, as shall be discussed in the chapter on Parliament, his principal function will be to preside over the national assembly as its speaker….” (Report of the Constitution Commission of Trinidad and Tobago 1974, para. 154).
In piloting the Constitution (Republic) Bill through the House of Representatives in March 1976, the prime minister, Dr Eric Williams, had this to say on the subject:
“In respect of Chapter 3 the president and the method of his election through the Electoral College, provision is to be made—I believe the amendment may have been circulated here—for a quorum for the Electoral College which was not actually stated in the provision in Clause 28 of the bill and, as I had indicated on the last occasion, speaking for the Cabinet, we have thought it wise to make provision for longer succession. In the absence or inability of the President of the Republic, the President of the Senate will act. In the event that the President of the Senate might himself be unavailable, the Speaker of the House of Representatives will take over…” (Hansard, House of Representatives, March 12, 1976, p. 679).
Since 1976, we have operated a system whereby the President of the Senate has acted as President of the Republic. The presidents of the Senate over the years have been Dr Wahid Ali (1976-86), Mr Michael Williams (1987-89), Mr Emmanuel Carter (1989-95), Mr Ganace Ramdial (1995-2002), Dr Linda Baboolal (2002-2007), Mr Danny Montano (2007-2010), Mr Timothy Hamel-Smith (since 2010).
The first president of the Senate under the republican constitution, Dr Wahid Ali, was a member of the PNM and made a monthly financial contribution to the party of seven-and-a-half per cent of his salary which was a requirement for all PNM legislators. This was confirmed in a statement made by Dr Ali to the Senate and reported in the Express newspaper on December 28, 1985, in a story by David Renwick under the headline “Senate President lashes out: Dr Ali calls for dignity.”
According to Renwick:
“Giving a breakdown of his salary and allowances yesterday in the context of some straight-shooting remarks on the need to uphold the dignity of the Senate and maintain respect for it as an institution, the qualified medical practitioner-turned parliamentary presiding officer explained that his gross monthly salary was $5,940. Out of this, $2,821 was deducted for PAYE, $460.37 as repayment on a car loan, $445.50 for a contribution to the PNM party and $356.40 as pension.”
The second president of the Senate, Mr Michael Williams, resigned as a senator primarily because he wanted to speak out on many national issues and he felt that it would have been difficult for him to do so and continue to hold the office of President of the Senate.
The third president of the Senate, Emmanuel Carter, who replaced Michael Williams during the tenure of the NAR administration, had the distinction of being retained as President of the Senate after the 1991 general election under the tenure of the incoming PNM administration.
The fourth president of the Senate, Ganace Ramdial, was elected in 1995 and also had the distinction of being re-elected in 2001 notwithstanding the fact that the Government had a minority of senators in the Senate on the day of his re-election because President Robinson had refused to appoint seven defeated candidates as senators on the advice of prime minister Panday.
The election of Dr Linda Baboolal as President of the Senate in 2002 ushered in the era of the overt activist politician being appointed to that office. As chairman of the PNM right up to the time of her appointment, there was no doubt as to where she stood politically. The election of Danny Montano as President of the Senate in 2007 came right after the completion of his tenure as a minister in the Cabinet of prime minister Manning from 2001 to 2007.
The current president of the Senate, Timothy Hamel-Smith, was very well known as a COP activist prior to the general elections of 2010. Indeed, his party colleagues have confirmed that he indicated that he would not get involved in COP political activity now that he had assumed the position of President of the Senate.
Is Dr Rowley’s problem with the current holder of the office or with the constitutional arrangement itself? The history tells its own story.
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