AMEND THA ACT
By Andre Bagoo Thursday, January 24 2013
TOBAGO House of Assembly (THA) Chief Secretary Orville London yesterday drafted a proposal for submission to Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar calling upon the Central Government to urgently pass legislation to amend the THA Act in order to make provision for a situation were there is a 12-0 result and there is no Minority Leader or opposition voice within the debating Assembly.
In an interview with Newsday, London said he will call for an amendment to the THA Act in order to give the President the power to appoint two independent councillors within the Assembly. Such councillors, he said, would form an independent voice, in place of a Minority Leader.
The developments, however, will not affect today’s planned inauguration ceremony which is scheduled to take place at 10 am at the Assembly Legislature Building, Jerningham Street, Scarborough, Tobago.
President George Maxwell Richards is due to swear in all 12 PNM candidates who were victorious in Monday’s THA election and to deliever an address. He will also inspect a ceremonial guard on the compound of the Assembly Chamber Building, where preparations for today’s ceremony were being done yesterday.
The Prime Minister is to attend the ceremony, and is expected to be accompanied by Delmon Baker, Minister of Tobago Development and MP for Tobago West.
Baker and Tobago East MP Vernella Alleyne-Toppin are members of the Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP) which failed to win any seat in the THA election under political leader Ashworth Jack, who was the Minority Leader.
London said after considering and consulting on the issue over the last two days, the consensus was that the THA can be constituted even without a Minority Leader or the councillor who is normally appointed by a Minority Leader.
However, he said in the interests of democracy, there should be an independent voice within the Assembly to allow for true debate and an amendment making provision for the situation of a 12-0 result would be proposed to Trinidad and Tobago Central Government.
London said, “The proposed amendment would stipulate that in the event there is no Minority Leader, the President shall appoint two councillors. If we can get that done we can have some type of opposition force to ensure true discussion of issues in the Assembly. The Assembly is a debating chamber.”
Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, the Cabinet member with responsibility for legislation, yesterday said in relation to London’s proposal that the matter has to first be deliberated on by Cabinet. Ramlogan expressed the view that while the THA Act stipulates that there must be a Minority Leader, it would be an “absurdity” if the Assembly was not regarded - legally - as properly constituted in the light of an overwhelming 12-0 mandate given by the people of Tobago.
“That is an interesting point about the composition but I am not sure how far it goes because it would, in my view, result in an absurdity,” he had said. February 28 is the date by which the Assembly must hold its first sitting under the provisions of the THA Act. However, London made clear that even without the passage of the proposed legislation the Assembly will be able to move forward with its business and will put measures in place to bolster the Assembly’s level of consultation with the people in order to counterbalance the abscence of a Minority Leader, the minority councillor or the two proposed independent councillors.
Currently, under the THA Act, the Assembly “shall” constitute: 12 assemblymen, four councillors and a presiding officer. There shall be a Minority Leader who appoints one of the four councillors who sit alongside the assemblymen in the chamber.
London said the President should be empowered to appoint two indepdent councillors - and not just one - in order to give this independent voice the power to present and second motions in the Assembly.
The Chief Secretary - who is to be sworn in for an unprecedented fourth term - rejected the possibility of having one PNM assemblyman cross the floor, becoming independent and, in the process, creating a Minority Leader. (A similar precedent had been set in 1971 in the Trinidad Parliament when the PNM won all 36 seats and two PNM MPs later declared themselves independent in order to form an Opposition.)
“I think that option is an artificial one,” London said. “What would happen there is a representative would be asked to disregard the will of the electorate. If you ask somebody to cross the floor, you are not following the mandate given to you by the people. I will not try to persuade anybody to cross the floor. That would be an insult to the electorate. The Minority Leader has to be an elected member of the Assembly and we cannot go against the spirit of the Act.”He said he had held preliminary talks with Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley on Tuesday and was due to draft the proposal to send to the Prime Minister yesterday.
“This is just a recommendation that would allow for some degree of comfort so that the democratic process will not be frustrated,” London said. He said regardless of whether an amendment is passed, the THA would embark on a series of monthly open sittings in the 12 electoral districts of the island in order to consult with the people. “It does present opportunities for democratising the process. We must keep the link with the people up,” London said. Rowley yesterday said he supports London’s proposal to the Prime Minister for an amendment to the THA Act.
“This is a simple matter and the PNM will lend support to this action to ensure that there is meaningful debate and reporting in the THA,” he said.
Rowley said an amendment “could under such circumstances, afford the President the power to appoint persons to the THA so as to allow an alternative voice to the majority such as we have independent senators in the national Parliament.”
However, describing the current situation as a “crisis of accountability” Ramlogan yesterday said the current situation where one political party holds unfettered power in the THA urgently demands that the independent offices of the State intensify their oversight.
“There is a clear, definite and dire need for some independence and oversight to ensure transparency and integrity,” he said. “This crisis of accountability will no doubt intensify and we must ensure that there is some oversight. There are some independent agencies that can contribute to the oversight role such as the Integrity Commission and the Auditor General’s office. Additionally there must be oversight from the two elected MPs as well as civil society groups in Tobago itself.”
In particular, he said, there is need for increased activity on the part of the Office of the Auditor General.
“One would expect that the Auditor General would move, as a matter of urgency, to complete the outstanding audits of the THA, having regard to the amount of money that is being spent and the numerous complaints and allegations of irregularities.”
Ramlogan said there was a backlog of the annual audits of the THA and this issue has now become even more critical because of the unfettered powers in the THA.
He said there is now greater cause for the Public Service Commission to make the necessary appointments to bolster staff at the Auditor General’s department.