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PRESIDENTIAL WHIM

Published: 
Sunday, August 6, 2017

The President of the Republic of T&T, while elected by the electoral college of Parliament, in reality is appointed by the Government of the day as it has the majority of seats in both Houses of Parliament and thus the majority of votes in the electoral college. His role according to the Constitution is one of a ceremonial Head of State, generally required to act in accordance with the advice of Cabinet.

Even in the few cases where he can act on his own, history suggests that presidents tend to act in accordance with the wishes of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet.

History has also shown that where the President has purported to act “independently,” in fact either the Constitution did not allow him to act in such a way (Robinson refusing to appoint senators recommended by the Prime Minister), or where he did have the power, he exercised it unlawfully (Robinson’s appointment of Mr Manning as Prime Minister after the 18-18 electoral tie even though he did not get the majority of votes). In both cases, the “independent” conduct was unconstitutional.

So under the Constitution it is intended that in day-to-day matters of governance the President is essentially powerless, which some argue is not necessarily a bad thing, as none of us voted for him.

While one might understand why a President, stifled by the strictures of his ceremonial office, would feel the need occasionally to flex some imaginary imperial muscle to get some respect, that doesn’t mean that his actions shouldn’t be scrutinised.

The recent press release from the Office of the President informing us that the National Awards Ceremony will no longer be held on Independence Day, but instead on Republic Day, merits such scrutiny.

In the release the President referred to his (presumably earlier) letter to (unnamed) stakeholders, the text of which stated that “the President is the Chancellor of the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago” and therefore “is responsible for the administration of the Order, which includes the ceremonial presentation of the National Awards.”

The letter went on to state that when we achieved Republican status, “we no longer owed allegiance to the Queen…This paved the way for National Awards to be conferred in the name of the Head of State, the President, whose constitutional and ceremonial authority, legitimacy and remit are embedded and rooted in the Republican Constitution.”

The letter argued that while Independence Day commemorates the road to freedom from colonial rule, Republic Day celebrates “our adulthood, our coming of age.”

The letter ended with the plea that “I hope these humble sentiments meet with your national expectations as to the Annual National Awards Ceremony being hosted on Republic Day.”

The Chief Justice, the chairman of the National Awards Committee, was reported as welcoming the change as “meaningful,” but did not say that he or his committee had been consulted. In fact, other than the Prime Minister, no one has come out and said that they were consulted.

The text of the press release essentially comprised the text of the letter to stakeholders and, this, combined with the evasiveness of the President’s communications adviser when asked which stakeholders had been consulted, made all of this passing strange.

Was it merely the announcement of a decision already made, a sort of Presidential fiat, now sought to be sanitised belatedly by a vague assertion that there had been some kind of prior widespread consultation?

Assuming the President has the power to change the date, and assuming further that there was consultation, is this decision justified?

T&T became an independent nation on August 31, 1962, or as the letter to stakeholders itself put it: “Independence Day celebrates the birth of our Nation.” That is when we as an independent people became responsible for ourselves and our destiny.

That was the point at which we ourselves could award “National” awards to those deserving—a process that began in 1963 just after Independence which culminated in the creation of the National Awards in 1969.

Because the “authority, legitimacy and remit” of National Awards are rooted in the very notion of us as a nation born on Independence Day, shouldn’t the ceremony continue to be held on that day, and not the date on which the office ceremonially handing the awards out came into being?

And even that latter date is controversial. We must remember that even though T&T became a Republic on August 1, 1976 (when the 1976 Constitution Act became law), Republic Day is in fact not celebrated on that date but instead on September 24, because, bizarrely, that was the date when the first Parliament met under the new Republican Constitution.

Because the first prime minister’s birthday fell on the following day, September 25, the selection of the date by the 1976 PNM government has always been considered to be suspicious.

Should we ever have proper constitutional reform, our nation is likely to have a new Constitution and consequently a new Second Republic (the Fifth Republic of France has existed since its 1958 Constitution) and, consequently, a new Republic Day.

Will the date for the awards ceremony have to be shifted again? None of this has the immutability and permanence of August 31, 1962. What motivated the sudden break from an almost 50-year-old tradition?

Surely one of the cornerstones of nationhood and nationalism is time honoured tradition which must be maintained and not casually discarded on a Presidential whim.

​Mickela Panday