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A Matter of principle

Full text of President Arthur NR Robinson’s
address to the nation yesterday.

January 5, 2001

LADIES and gentlemen, warm greetings for the best of everything for the new year, for the new century which also happens to be the new millennium. It is my hope that all of us will do whatever we can to start this very important occasion, period and start it right.

I thought I would talk to you very informally. Firstly let me extend my deepest gratitude to all of you who sent me greetings by letter, cards or telephone on the occasion of the address I gave to you a short time ago. It is unusual of me to speak so often. The occasion has arisen because of the state of the country and I would like to assure all of our citizens that throughout my public life (45 years now) which began even before the Federation in which I was a member of Parliament, I have tried to set my sights and purposes on the public good.

So whatever I have done, and no doubt I have made mistakes, but whatever I have done is in good faith and conviction that it is in the public good; it has been a long history, longer than anyone else in this country or in the region. I have served at all levels of public life; I have had all types of experiences and the benefit of training by my parents and good teachers at every level, primary, secondary and university level. So that in a sense I have been through extremely difficult times and occasions. In a sense I can say I have been privileged to have had vast experience and the opportunity to acquire the expertise that I have.

I am deeply troubled by the state of Trinidad and Tobago because I find a great lack of understanding of the way in which we are governed and it may be that education in this respect has been lacking throughout the years and also public discussion and debate on important matters has not taken place as it should have done.

But I believe that one of the occasions of public discussion and debate was what caused me to speak on that occasion and on this occasion the matter involved the constitutional powers of Trinidad and Tobago and in relation to the Prime Minister.

May I make it absolutely clear, I do not want this discussion to be personal. It has never been a matter of personalities.

I have endeavoured in my public life to place principle at the centre of my motivation. Personalities have been subsidiary, and most times, irrelevant. Principle has been my motivating force, so that I try whatever I do to do what is right. I may make mistakes, which is inevitable, but I try, and I do seek to have correction.

This situation today, I am open to correction, if I made a mistake; and I am open to correction, but it must be on the basis on rationality, not on the basis of emotionalism or the mobilisation. It is not numbers that is the operating factor.

There have been countries, newly independent countries where numbers have counted, but it is one person who determined the course of events.

In the history of the world the same thing has happened, where dictatorships have arisen on the basis of the influence or power of a single man. So I emphasise what is important is reason.

You know from very early times there have been philosophies about human beings. There was a philosopher- Thomas Hobbes—who was of the view that men in their natural state if left alone will fight against one another, kill one another, that “life will be nasty, brutish and short”. That is how one philosopher saw the nature of man. John Locke, however, felt that the nature of man was to be moved by reason, that laws could be established to govern man.

Whereas Hobbes thought a man with power was necessary to keep men in order, Locke believed that if men could reason things out, they could resolve differences and develop in relative harmony. There were the views.

T&T today is a democratic state, but it did not happen by chance. A lot of us, our fathers, struggled for it and I need not recount the background from which we have come—we all know, slavery, colonialism and then independence in 1962 and republican status 1976.

Others in the world struggled for this independence as well. The French Revolution with its principles of liberty, fraternity and equality. The American war of independence—we hold these truths that men are created equal; and are endowed with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Today, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed—that is the basis of which we have set our democracy. The governed deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. It is government by consent, according to the Constitution that we have set up—representative government.

Out of the representation of the people comes the executive or the Cabinet. Then there is the President who is supposed to hold the whole thing together and he holds executive power, but that executive power is exercised by his ministers or any other entity. So the President does not normally exercise that executive power—he does it through ministers or other authorities so empowered.

The Constitution that we have sets up at the head of the Cabinet, which consist of the Prime Minister, a first minister, and all this is derived from British history where there are general elections, usually contested by parties, two or more parties, but the leader of the party who gains the majority of seats in the House of Representative is called upon by the President to form the government.

Under our Constitution we have a parliament, consisting of a Lower House or House of Representatives, which consists completely of persons who are elected by the electorate. There is also a Senate and the Senate is comprised in this way—16 members are appointed by the President on the advice of the PM; six by the President on the advice of the Leader of the Opposition, and nine appointed by the President in his sole discretion. That makes it thirty-one.

Now the question arose as to how these 16 are to be appointed by the PM. What has happened in this case, the PM and his supporters have claimed the right to appoint certain defeated candidates as Senators and even as Ministers. So an issue arose as to whether these persons who were disapproved by the electorate should form part of the government to govern the country.

It has happened on one or two occasions in the past, that one person, I think the most was two persons, was selected to the Cabinet or the Government as the case may be. Now a lot of people, including myself, hold the view that once you start using people who have been, to put it in this way, rejected by the electorate in a representative and democratic system, the numbers can increase, as indeed the numbers have increased now from one or two in the past to now seven.

It is unprecedented.

I have tried to get information all over the world and nowhere can I get information to support that move in the kind of system in which we operate. If you approve of seven, then there can be ten out of a cabinet of 16, which means that the country can be effectively governed by people you did not want even to be in parliament. Now what can the president do in such a situation. He is called pon to appoint these people. Some people, namely supporters of the Government, say the President cannot do otherwise. So the President sees the democratic system being destroyed. He sits at the centre and he must, like Nero, continue to fiddle while the country burns. And we have the experience of other countries in the world where the democratic system has broken down, or has been converted into a dictatorship. Over our years of existence we have managed to preserve the democratic system of government, but that is no guarantee for the future. …

We have had an acting prime minister who was a Member of Parliament for just about three months. He was not elected by Parliament. He did not command a majority in the Cabinet; there were others who were much longer serving than he. Yet he was appointed to act as prime minister.

I could find no precedent in the world.

My mother used to tell us as children, “bad habits are gathered at slow degrees, as streams running into rivers and rivers into seas”. So things happen day by day, you accept them and they keep creeping on, until you are overwhelmed, you can’t do anything more about them. This is how it has happened in history. This is how it has happened in other countries of the world and this is why many people, including myself, are disturbed, not only disturbed but horrified in a situation where there is great contention about the elections—the Elections and Boundaries Commission—where there has been voter padding. There are 12, I think, people who are before the courts for voter padding, where two candidates have had petitions filed against them for swearing false declarations in their nomination papers.

It is the accumulation—bad habits growing by slow degrees, streams run into rivers, and rivers into sea. And we as the citizenry must do nothing and the President must sit in the centre of it, fiddling.

Well, the President has examined the situation very carefully. You will remember the case of the two Tobago senators, only two senators out of something like 35, and they voted against a measure which they considered detrimental to the island from which they come, and they were fired.

Then you remember the enquiry into the administration of justice. I sought advice as to what I could do, because many lawyers, including nine senior counsel, signed a petition to me to stop the enquiry...I had to consider the matter carefully. I could not just discard petitions from so many experienced lawyers. I had to study it. But there were those who say “No”, that I should just act, act like a rubber stamp. So it was with the Tobago senators, that I should act like a rubber stamp, that I had no business speaking about it at all. I should act as though I did not have a brain.

...A passage from one of the most distinguished Constitutional lawyers in Britain, Sir Ivor Jennings… the quotation was what Lord Esher said in relation to the monarch in England. He wrote the monarch is favoured, could advise, could warn, could even defer in order to get further reactions about it.

Now the people who criticise this in Trinidad and Tobago say Trinidad and Tobago is based on the British monarchical system, but that is what Sir Ivor Jennings said about Lord Esher in relation to the British monarchy.

There is a difference; in fact, two important fundamental differences between examining and arriving at conclusions…at what happens in England in relation to Constitutional matters and Trinidad and Tobago.

The first important difference is that the United Kingdom does not have a written constitution. It is based on custom and patterns of behaviour over hundreds of years. In Trinidad and Tobago, our government is based on statue, the Constitution is a statue, so our governmental system is statutory; so it is important to look at the principles involved in the construction of a statute in order to decide what indeed are the powers of the public authorities.

I want to read from this book, which is almost 1,000 pages. It is written by Sir Ivor Jennings, and he has a very strong and acute chapter on the powers conferred by ... technical powers. Now, I am open to correction .... One thing I would like is [that] those who criticise, or oppose, please present me with a legal opinion—not an emotional opinion, but present a legal opinion, because the Constitution is a legal document; it is more than a legal document. You see, it has a philosophical base. Before I spoke about the American War of Independence and the document that arose out of the American War of Independence. I talked about the French Revolution and what emerged from the French Revolution: ideas of people’s consent, government by consent, I spoke of all of that. So in construing a constitution, you have to know what is the basis of that constitution.

The Constitution has a preamble which carefully sets out the ideas which were at the basis of the formulation of our Constitution of 1962, and those that remain in our republican constitution of 1976, whereas, the people of Trinidad and Tobago have affirmed that their nation is founded on principles—notice that word, on principles—which acknowledge the supremacy of God, and see how religion is brought in. There was debate about this at Queen’s College, and religious leaders were present in the discussion that led to the founding of our nation. So, we have affirmed that this nation is founded on principles and acknowledges the supremacy of God. He is the One, he is the Supreme One. Supremacy of God.

Faith in fundamental rights and freedom and the position on the family in a society of free men and free institutions: government by consent.

It goes further, and it says that they acknowledge that men and institutions remain free only when respect is shown for moral and spiritual values—notice those words, moral and spiritual values—and the rule of law. So that is the philosophy. Those ideas express a philosophy which is at the base of our foundation as a nation. That’s how we came together as a nation. That’s our commitment. Anything which destroys that destroys the foundation, the base of what we are as a nation.

If I may digress, I am deeply troubled by the amount of crime and anti-social behaviour, and I ask myself if really we have committed ourselves through the years, after this original commitment, if we had continued with this commitment through the years—all of us—and studied our Constitution as we read our Bible, or Qur’an, as the case may be, or other holy books...if we had studied our Constitution and spread these ideas around, whether the society would have reached the stage that it has reached today.

Moral and spiritual values and the rule of law. The law doesn’t go by itself. So, in examining a constitution, such as Trinidad and Tobago’s, everything is not said in the statute. You have to be aware of what is not said, and what must be taken into account. So, you must take into account that Trinidad and Tobago is a democratic society with government by consent. You must take into account our foundation...that we are founded as a society by our commitment to moral and spiritual values.

But, is this taught in the schools? To what extent—and if not, why not? Do we hear much of it in Parliament, and if not why not? Why is the Constitution so misused, and certainly the Preamble. The other parts may be a little technical and, maybe, in some cases a bit difficult to understand. But, certainly, the Preamble, the basis, the ideas which have infused the Constitution—certainly, those ideas are not difficult to understand.

So, I come to the point now of interpreting a statute. So, as I said, I am open to correction—not on any emotional basis. I would like to hear learned comments, one which one can rationally examine and accept or reject, as the case may be. And this is where I turn to this book as an aid; it helps. I do not say it is an absolute answer but there are things which it says that we should take note of about statutory powers.

“Statutory power where conferred is conferred, as it were, upon public officials as a trust. It is not absolute, so nowhere is public power absolute when it is conferred on a public officer, and we are all public officers, from the President down. So, no power we possess is absolute. I have heard it said that what the Prime Minister wants, he must get. Now, that is the road to what we call absolutism. That is where dictatorship arises. If power is not absolute, if statutor is not absolute, what are the constraints of that power?

Statutory power can only validly be used in the right and proper way. You see how our value system comes in even in an English textbook. It can only be used as it is conferred… upon trust and can only be used in the right and proper way.

Now, it goes on to say that Crown lawyers—and, in this case, State lawyers—have argued in numerous cases that unrestricted language confers unfettered powers and discretion, but the term “unfettered” in relation to governmental power is a contradiction in terms. It does not exist in a country which is under a rule of law, so power is governed by law. Whatever power it is, it is governed by law. And what is the law in the case of public officials? That power must be used in a manner that is proper and right.

Now, a Professor Wade says that this principle is to be found in the British system, American systems and French systems. In all of them, there is no such thing as unfettered discretion. It is inappropriate for the public good. There has been no discussion on this aspect of the matter at all. You see, people read the language of the Constitution, and the language of the Constitution says that the President must act on the advice of the Cabinet or any other minister under the authority of the Cabinet, except in other law it is specifically provided otherwise.

So, they look at that and say that is all, but that is not all, because the ideas, they are the basis, the foundation of the Constitution, and if the powers are used for the very destruction of the system, which we have set up as a democratic system, then those powers are used inappropriately, not for the public good.

So, you can decide whether it is for the public good. The public are you. Is it for your good that you should have people that you don’t elect governing you when your constitution and your system of government is government by consent?

That is the issue, and that is why I have taken a position as President of this country until it is demonstrated to me in a reasonable way that I am wrong. At the moment, this has not been done. I have heard a lot of emotions being expressed.

I don’t want to descend or even appear to descend, into personalities, but I must say this: there was a statement which was produced and circulated by the president of the Law Association. Many people may have thought that it was an agreed document by the association; my information is, it was not. The document contains very important mis-statements about the position of the President in other matters. Now, a lawyer should be very careful, at least when making statements of fact.

We may differ on the law, but we should make sure that our facts are true and correct.

I need not mention statements of the law, but the statement never mentioned anything about the use of a statutory power. Never. And I think that it went so far as to say that if the Prime Minister did wrong, the President was not the man to do something about it. He was to leave it for the other Cabinet members or the Parliament or the electorate. You know sometimes by the time the electorate gets to know what is happening, the electorate doesn’t have a chance. Things creep upon them, and if there are not persons in the community who are prepared to stand by the values which are the foundation of the nation, if there are no such persons, then that foundation can be eroded and eventually slip away.

So my business tonight was to explain to the nation as well as I could, as simply as I could, the basis on which I have taken the stand that I will not appoint those individuals as Senators or Ministers until I have arguments that could convince me that I should do otherwise.

If they are appointed Senators tomorrow, the following day they can be made Ministers. What will stop them? And if they are made Ministers, they can be in the Cabinet. what will stop them? And, if it is seven today, it can be 14 tomorrow. A nation has to look at its future, it cannot live now for now. Some individuals may live now for now, a nation cannot live now for now; it’s got to look into the future and provide for the future, see the dangers that can confront us and provide against those dangers, and that is why some nations succeed and those that do not provide for the future do not succeed. That is why the population of a country has to be alert and not leave it up to the rulers or to persons who by reason of the money they have can command a great deal of power in this society.

The democratic system is based on an electoral system that provides for one person, one vote. When you begin to tamper with the foundations of the system, then you are seeking to erode [it] for your own purpose.

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