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Thank you, Your Excellency

January 7, 2001
By Selwyn R. Cudjoe

IT WAS like a breath of fresh air; a cool drink on a blazing summer day; a necessary corrective to erring students. It was an invitation to return to first principles—the philosophical basis—upon which government is founded; the need to differentiate between what is written and what can be deduced through rational thought; an understanding that societies become nasty and brutish if there is no countervailing authority. In his wisdom, he reminded us: "Bad habits are gathered by slow degrees; / As streams run into rivers and rivers to seas." He also administered a spirit lash that said: "You may call me ugly; you may say I am senile; but I am a million years ahead of creatures whose mental landscape leave little room for truth, beauty or justice."

Previously, I argued that Panday and his crew seemed incapable of addressing issues of truth, fairness and justice, first virtues of human activities. I noted that when a government sets in place a series of illegal activities, they corrode the internal social organs to a point where people turn against such injustices. Where injustice prevails and one takes advantage of a fragile political system, one marches down a road towards anarchy and tyranny. Hence my invocation of John Locke's Second Treatise on Government. He counselled: conquest or violence gives no right, no matter how much they are coloured with "the name, pretences, or forms of law."

The President's use of David Hume and John Locke to structure his oration was a masterful move. Placing the present crisis in context, he suggested alternative directions: a path that leads to a brutish, anarchical society or a road whose signpost is rationality and the consent of the governed. He reminded us that government is a compact between the governed and the governors and a constitution is a guide to action. Because one could never write every contingency into a text, the attendant silences always beg for expression and articulation.

In the circumstances, the President's references to the American and French constitutions were instructive. His insistence on "the public good", the basis of all civic action, is a key to understanding the function of government. As he reflected on the American experience, the President may have been thinking of the Bill of Rights inserted into the American Constitution in 1789, two years after the Constitution was adopted, to protect the rights of the common people.

Those rights (the freedom of the press, the right to assembly, the freedom of speech, etc,) came after the Anti-federalists kept asking: "Where is the security? Where is the barrier drawn between the government and the rights of the citizens, as secured in our State governments?" How, indeed, were people's rights to be protected against arbitrary government powers, particularly in light of the enormous powers of the slave holders, the rich planters and the federal structure of government?

The President's assertion that our Constitution revolves around the "Rights Enshrined" in Part 1 (our Bill of Rights), responds to a similar concern posed by the Anti-federalists: Given the overwhelming and arbitrary power of a prime minister, how are citizens' rights defended? Necessarily, his objection to the presence of defeated candidates, in toto, in the national government is his way of being the public spokesman (perhaps, the public conscience) who protects the rights of voiceless citizens. As he said, citizens cannot wait for five years to seek redress from the injustices of the governors, especially when the accretion of many small wrongs can lead to the consolidation of a dictatorship. Our people fear that if Panday and his crew get away with their wrongdoing, there will never be free and fair elections in T&T again.

Apart from protecting the rights of the voiceless, the President reflected on values, morality, and the role money plays in our democracy. I examine these ideas constantly. Yet, the religious leaders, public commentators and university professors who support the Prime Minister, never find a place in their assessments for these issues. For them, means are more important than ends and material gain more important than humanitarian generosity.

When the President cited Hume, he must have known that Hume approved of the King's disposal of offices and emoluments, whether or not they are called "by the invidious appellations of corruption and dependence" (Hume's words), to carry forward the nefarious purposes of the King. The President knew exactly where he was going.

Government presumes the consent of the governed; the maintenance of free institutions; and a respect for moral and spiritual values. In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls enumerated much of what our President said. He reasoned that the principle of fairness has two parts. First, "it is not possible to be bound to unjust institutions which exceed limits of tolerable injustice. In particular, it is not possible to have an obligation to autocratic and arbitrary forms of government." Second, "obligatory ties presume just institutions, or ones reasonable just in view of the circumstances." Citizens have no obligations to regimes that coerce their consent.

It is this unravelling of the union the President alluded to when he spoke to his nation. He is aware of the consequences that follow when the trust between the governed and its governors is violated, particularly when there are so many contentious issues that traumatise our citizens. One does not rub salt into our wounds by being oblivious of our sentiments and the consequences of deepening distrust between the governed and the governors. The Prime Minister, he suggests, has trampled upon too many of the conventions that hold citizens of the republic together.

The President's address will go down as one of the most eloquent orations our generation has ever heard. May God give him the grace to bear our national burdens proudly and unbent. In the last days, we will say: he stood for country and for honour. His was the nation's pride; a patriot to the end. This is why all my neighbours applauded spontaneously when he concluded his speech.

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