Sunday, August 11, 2013

Presidential powers - Guest commentary by Dr Hamid Ghany

File: Dr Hamid Ghany
The recent address to Parliament by President Anthony Carmona at the opening of the Fourth Session of the Tenth Parliament of the Republic has caused widespread commentary, both positive and negative.

The speech contained some good suggestions and points of view, but also had some areas of controversy. 

In the first instance, the President started his address by referring to himself as the “Head of the Parliament”. This is debatable as the Parliament consists of the President, the House of Representatives and the Senate. 

The person who has overall responsibility for the day-to-day operations of the Parliament is the Speaker. One is not quite sure about the context in which the President was speaking as section 22 of the Constitution states that the President is Head of State and the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.

In his address, the President also said the following :

“As the engine room for national political debate, Parliament, then, must be about ‘the People’s business’ not ‘the Party’s business’. In other words, as leaders and lawmakers, parliamentarians of differing political persuasions are still expected to COOPERATE on matters that promote the development, security and uplifting of the society. 

Once a “delicate balance” is struck, all Parliamentarians may be seen to be "cooperating, even collaborating to ensure that Bills passed are in the wider public interest.”

While the President’s sentiments are laudable here insofar as he expects all parliamentarians to cooperate with one another, he must also be mindful of the fact that our current Constitution has been founded on the Westminster-Whitehall principle of division between a Government and an Opposition with the existence of a rotation of power. 

Unlike other countries that operate different political systems that use “consensus” instead of “division”, our parliamentarians are expected to be divisive. A cursory reading of sections 40(2)(b), 83(2), 119(2), and 119(6) of the Constitution would confirm this.

Consensus is possible when there are Bills requiring special majorities, but consensus on a regular basis under our existing system could leave an Opposition permanently in opposition and a Government permanently in government. 

A consensual model where there is no “government” or “opposition”, but rather majorities and minorities that change over time and an Executive branch that is truly separate from the Legislature could better meet the President’s aspirations.

Perhaps the highlight of the President’s speech was his accountability, which he was not required to display but he did anyway, on the issue of his alterations to the independent benches in the Senate. This was a refreshing move on his part and demonstrated that he had the political will to carry out a politically controversial decision.

He has now freed future Presidents to be able to do the same thing and has sent a message that a new President can exercise his/her powers to change independent Senators at any time. 

The fact that he waited until the opening of a new Parliament was professionally polite as parliamentary committees are usually appointed at the beginning of every new session and his actions are, therefore, not disruptive to the parliamentary process. In our system, the prorogation of Parliament terminates all pending business unless there is a continuing resolution in certain instances.

His concerns about the minimum age limit for Senators being 25 years must be examined in terms of what the debate in 1976 was about regarding the revised Senate. One of the major concerns was the issue of possibly having an 18 year old acting as President of the Republic seeing that the President of the Senate was to be given the additional task of being the first in line to act as President. 

That argument was challenged by those who put forward the view that you could have an 18 year old Speaker who may get the opportunity to act as President if the President of the Senate was unable to act. These are constitutional reform matters that can be considered.

The address by the President at the opening of Parliament continued the tradition of having this more in line with a State of the Union Address as opposed to the concept of a “Throne Speech” whereby the Prime Minister would write a speech for the Head of State to outline the legislative programme of the Government for the coming year that is normally done in parliamentary systems. 

A Throne speech is normally followed by a debate and then a vote of confidence on the proposals. If the Government loses that vote, it would normally be required to resign.

The best United Kingdom precedent that highlights this was the 1924 parliamentary amendment to the King’s Address to Parliament after the December 1923 general election that rendered the Government unable to proceed and led to the resignation Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in January 1924.

Our independence constitution did not include provisions like this and we moved away from the concept of a “Throne Speech” after we became a republic in 1976. That move was based on the view that such a speech was a colonial anachronism, instead of seeing it as a tool of annual accountability. 

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Jai & Sero

Jai & Sero

Our family at home in Toronto 2008

Our family at home in Toronto 2008
Amit, Heather, Fuzz, Aj, Jiv, Shiva, Rampa, Sero, Jai