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Politically incorrect

By Terry Joseph
December 28, 2000

TRINIS who described last weekend as "the extended Christmas holiday", did so to the exclusion of Eid-ul-Fitr, a Muslim observance, which accounted for their fifth successive day of "lahay". However, it was not that week's only politically incorrect episode.

On Monday night, His Excellency, President Arthur NR Robinson, descended into colloquialism during a televised 40-minute peregrination, taking the plunge to let all and sundry know he was not available for being pushed around by politicians.

"Don't try that," a rare lapse into street-talk, plucked from his protracted explanation for delaying the appointment of a new Cabinet, encapsulated what was a major public relations triumph for the Head of State.

But the patently artificial roots-image faded fast, when the same banners screamed "Cabinet confusion", in labelling Mr Robinson's refusal to install several Members of Parliament, duly recommended by Prime Minister Basdeo Panday; in keeping with the constitutional requirement.

Now, given Mr Robinson's continuing ill health, it may appear politically incorrect to criticise him at this time. But unlike his example, we must be careful about using discretion where it discards the baby with the bath water.

And while we need a president who will guard the checks and balances built into the Constitution, Mr Robinson must know that The President cannot appear to "catch a vaps".

Yet, it is difficult to avoid a suspicion that, last Friday, Mr Robinson did exactly that, by adopting some kind of moralistic position at the swearing-in ceremony. In the absence of a definitive statement, prevailing speculation suggested that he constructed his most curious position on planks of precedent and personal principle.

His stand resulted in the public embarrassment of proposed Ministers who either lost at the previous week's polls, or had petitions before the court contesting their election. It also threw the nation into confusion. He was, we are told, doing his civic duty.

Mark you, this is the same Mr Robinson who, in 1971, told us to boycott the democratic process of voting altogether and in 1986 ascended to the leadership of the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), by a route many observers still describe as politically incorrect.

So now, perhaps in a bid to atone for haunting peccadilloes, Mr Robinson conjures up a holier-than-thou persona, clothes it in baleful morality and refers to a single instance during the watch of his predecessor, Mr Noor Hassanali, as one of the precedents that informed his behaviour.

He demanded certification of the election results from the appropriate authority, on the premise that The President cannot be expected to take official information from newspapers, a move that some observers construed as the first of his delaying tactics. But even as he cited the Hassanali precedent, Mr Robinson was busily contesting the validity of other well-established models. Among those Ministers he did swear in, was Mervyn Assam, whose election as representative of the Tunapuna constituency was, at the time of the ceremony, still under query from challenger Eddie Hart.

Steadfastly holding to precedent, morality and other noble virtues, Mr Robinson had, by the action of installing Mr Assam, declared him winner some 24 hours before the recount of votes cast in that constituency was completed. Indeed, the very Tunapuna constituency provides us with another precedent that Mr Robinson seems to have quite conveniently forgotten. In 1995, Hart triumphed over Hector Mc Clean, but the latter was sworn-in by President Hassanali as Speaker of the House of Representatives, an appointment that positioned the loser well above any Cabinet Minister on the country's official protocol list.

Interestingly enough, while Mr Robinson was tip-toeing across the moral high-ground, presumably in the role of chief guardian of our Constitution, American president-elect George W Bush, custodian of the world's most celebrated democracy, appointed a losing candidate, John Ashcroft, as that country's Attorney General.

Meanwhile, here at home, by disbanding the former Cabinet and failing to complete the swearing-in of the new, Mr Robinson managed to leave his country bereft of a National Security Minister for the longest holiday period in our history.

Nor was it just losing candidates and national welfare that were affected by Mr Robinson's whimsical behaviour. Holding aloft the flag of his impromptu morality crusade, Mr President peremptorily retired from the ceremony, leaving two winning candidates, Winston Peters and Bill Chaitan in confusion. Peters and Chaitan, both of whom romped to victory with convincing majorities, have been accused of making false declarations on their nomination papers.

And after such a bewildering demonstration of executive snafu, we now hear that Mr Robinson will continue the swearing-in process this week, even as he seeks legal advice on the appointment of some of the proposed Ministers. It certainly doesn't sound correct, nor does it convincingly refute continuing allegations that some of his actions might be politically motivated.

Frankly, the president's conduct in this latest fiasco did more than leave us astonished. By his own hand, he has tempted a lot of people to wonder if the advice he is currently seeking should be limited to purely legal considerations.

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