October 07, 2001
By Raffique Shah
THE country's attorneys all seem to agree that Prime Minister Basdeo Panday cannot be removed from office unless there is a successful vote of no confidence in his government in Parliament. They argue that the Constitution is crystal clear on the matter and allows the President no discretion, either on the removal of the PM or on calling a general election if or when the PM so advises him. If anything, this concurrence of opinions by our army of attorneys illustrates in a most graphic manner why some wise person concluded many years ago that the law is an ass. And if I must interpret this statement as literally as our attorneys do the provisions of the Constitution, then all lawyers are asses (a simple case of singular and plural, strictly according to textbooks on English grammar).
When attorneys argue that the Constitution is restrictive, they are absolutely correct. They cannot be faulted in interpreting the law so narrowly, especially when they are coming from the colonial mindset that is endemic to the profession. I imagine, too, they are all thinking of this political crisis ending up before the courts where our judges, too, seem to be stuck in the letter-of-the-law mode, where there is little room for examining the spirit of the law. So, the view is that Panday stays on as Prime Minister for as long as there is no vote of no confidence moved against his government, or he refuses to resign.
I should, however, like to paint a hypothetical picture of this unfolding political drama that will expose the stupidity of this constitutional straightjacket. As Friday's sitting of the House demonstrated, Panday and 15 MPs cannot govern the country effectively. They will be allowed only to pass legislation that meets with the approval of the majority. Now, if tomorrow ten more MPs were to withdraw their support from Panday and the UNC, the PM can still sit in his chair and govern, matters not how absurd, how farcical this situation may be. And to take the ridiculous to the sublime, what if all but he and the Attorney General remain in the Government benches, while the others desert him for whatever reasons?
Clearly, if we reason the way the attorneys do, the two-member government will remain in power, since the Constitution allows it. So the other 34 members refuse to bring a vote of no confidence in the government, Parliament is "hog-tied", but the Constitution does not allow for the President to act. His Excellency therefore sits in President's House, watches as his Parliament degenerates into a joke, and he twiddles his thumbs—or better still, uses them to read and re-read the Constitution. Taken to its extreme, such a farcical situation can continue for a full five years until the term of office of the two-man or five-man or 16-man government comes to an end in accordance with the Constitution.
Does this not expose the hollowness of the argument that the President can act only in keeping with narrow terms of the Constitution? Or that the law is an ass and a marble rolled into one? Clearly, no constitution caters for every eventuality that a society may encounter, which is why there are heads of state who, based on the provisions of such constitutions, are allowed varying degrees of flexibility. And while, in the narrowest interpretation of our Constitution, the President appears to be restricted in the removal of a prime minister, he must be allowed to use his discretion when we arrive at the kind of parliamentary anarchy that seems to have enveloped us.
But I want to take my argument further, for the sake of my attorney friends (and foes), and most of all for members of the public to see the stupidity of the law when it is interpreted in a literal manner by those who practise it. Let's take murder as an example. I have often heard of instances in which persons who eventually became victims had informed the police well beforehand of threats against their lives, or of actual attacks. And oftentimes the police would say to them: call us when a murder is committed. In strictly observing the law, the police, or any citizen for that matter, could look at an assailant about to attack a victim and refuse to intervene. The assailant has committed no offence—not until he whips out a gun or a dagger and puts an end to the life of his victim.
There is another example I wish to cite. When the Gypsy/Chaitan matters regarding their dual citizenship came before the courts, the very attorneys who are today brandishing the Constitution to justify a minority government sitting in office, said then that there was something called "the spirit of the Constitution". And I agreed with them, since I believe that there was an oversight in not having the Constitution amended when dual citizenship was instituted in the 1980s.
Why, therefore, are they contesting the matter since the Constitution is clear in its restrictions on who can and who cannot run for office? If they so believe that the Constitution is cast in Guanapo boulders, then withdraw the cases and concede the two seats to the PNM.
But they won't. For them, and for their colleagues who are trapped in legalese, not to add colonial wigs and gowns, courtrooms are centres for debate in which one can argue for or against something with ease. And the law is there to be twisted to suit their aims and their pockets, not serve justice, which is why we have so many criminals walking the streets and so many innocent people in jail. Well, it is time that we, the citizens, let these attorneys know that our beloved country is not a stage, nor is it a courtroom. We are dealing with the lives of 1.3 million people, and when a government refuses to address issues as critical as unbridled corruption, when sycophants join together to serve their common, nefarious interests, we must stand up against them.
President Robinson must act now, not later. This country is on the brink of a breakdown in law and order, and the perpetrators of this lawlessness are safely ensconced in high office. This is a case where "police and thief" are one and the same, where lawmakers are lawbreakers. Witness what happened in Parliament on Friday. Does the President need more evidence that "an occasion" has arisen for him to intervene, to restore some semblance of sanity before anarchy sets in? I think not.
Copyright © Raffique Shah