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The Piggott effect

Published: 
Sunday, November 26, 2017

Last Wednesday the Guardian editorial addressed the issue of more power for select committees. The editorial started as follows:

“It might be time to review the system of parliamentary select committees as it operates in this country. Under the Westminster system, these committees play a critical role, strengthening Parliament’s ability to hold the executive to account. However, the ability of these committees to enhance executive accountability will be limited unless they are accorded additional powers, such as making it mandatory to appear before them.”

This editorial was inspired by a report earlier last week that former EFCL chairman Arnold Piggott declined to appear before the Joint Select Committee on State Enterprises. Piggott’s refusal hurt the image of the Rowley administration. There is now word that he has had a change of heart and he will now appear.

The issue of strengthening the parliamentary committee system was addressed in the 1998-1999 parliamentary term. At that time, the proposal to amend the Constitution to introduce departmental select committees that would be given the power to scrutinize the service commissions, government ministries and departments was the topic du jour.

This was a fundamental change from previous practice where parliamentary committees were not as effective as they ought to be. The constitutional amendment was subsequently passed after much disquiet in various sectors of the society and became Act No 29 of 1999. The bill only required a simple majority in order to amend section 66 of the Constitution.

This was a reform of the parliamentary system that was designed to enhance its powers of scrutiny. It followed the scandal of 1985 when Plipdeco refused to appear before the Public Accounts (Enterprises) Committee and then Senator Lincoln Myers sat on the steps of the Hall of Justice for 40 days in a dawn-to-dusk fast.

The 1985 refusal of Plipdeco to appear had its mirror last week when Piggott also declined to appear before the Joint Select Committee on State Enterprises. This 1985 episode also helped to catapult the NAR to victory in 1986.

In 1985, there were some people in the society who described Myers’ fast as a “farce”. The struggle by people like Lincoln Myers in the development of parliamentary scrutiny should never be derided. The bill brought by the Panday administration in 1998-1999 was an organic continuation of that struggle insofar as the evolution of parliamentary scrutiny was concerned.

In the debate on the bill, Dr Keith Rowley, then an opposition MP, associated himself with the so-called “six wise men” who had come out in opposition to the creation of these committees. He concluded his contribution to the debate on February 24, 1999, by saying as follows:

“Mr Speaker, the note from the Chief Justice and his colleagues ends by saying that this action is a retrograde step and against the public interest. When the sitting Chief Justice of a country stands up and makes a statement like that, all you people in Trinidad and Tobago with ears to hear you must hear.” (Hansard, House of Representatives, February 24, 1999, p 574).

The then chief justice Michael de la Bastide as well as the other people who constituted the “six wise men”, namely former chief justices Sir Isaac Hyatali, Cecil Kelsick and Clinton Bernard, and former presidents Sir Ellis Clarke and Noor Hassanali were opposed to that constitutional amendment to create these departmental joint select committees. The fear at that time was that this was a threat to democracy.

Eighteen years later, the Guardian editorial is calling for more reforms to introduce mandatory appearances before these select committees when a summons is issued.

According to the editorial: “The intent, in making it an offence not to appear before a standing committee, is not to be punitive but to ensure accountability and transparency in affairs of the State.”

This is the Piggott effect.

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