President Anthony Carmona’s retreat and choices for newly appointed Independent Senators is being questioned.
During his address at the ceremonial opening of Parliament on Wednesday, the President said he would be undertaking a two day retreat with Independent Senators to discuss their role as Independents. However, it’s not sitting too well with at least one Political Scientist, Dr Kenwyn Taylor. Dr Taylor, a Political Science instructor at the University of the West Indies told Triniscene.com that he believes the retreat interferes with the independence of the senators.
“Because he can influence them," Dr Taylor said. "While he may be discussing their roles as independents, I think they are the ones who should be allowed to handle the briefings of their functionality within the senate, and that it has never happened before it is in some way negating the level of independence that we look for in an independent senator."
Dr Taylor said the country may, then, not get the level of independence needed and the perception that the President was not as influential as he should have been in previous parliamentary discussions, may be the cause of the retreat.
“What has prompted this decision now?” He asked. “Was it the views and comments from the media with regards to his inaction? Or is it that since he has authority to appoint senators that he feels that perhaps he sees his role as one to be involved in their development?”
Dr Taylor aggregates for greater communication between President Carmona and the general population, and suggests that greater communication could lead to fewer concerns from the public regarding his decisions. However, the bigger question the instructor asks of the move, is whether or not President Carmona saw the need because of a lack of experience in the senators.
“Is it that he sees some of the appointments he made to the senate cannot perform their role?”
Then there is the cost of the retreat to taxpayers.
A senior source in the Finance Ministry said there was always an allocation for the Office of the President, and the breakdown goes like this:
"Training vote" (to cover expenses regarding fees paid to outsourced trainers): $200,000.00
"Other contracted services": $325,000.00
"Hiring of consultants, hosting of functions, and conducting seminars": $2 million.
However, the senior source indicated if the allocation is indeed utilised for the retreat, it would be the first time they are aware of it. The Finance Ministry said a breakdown for this retreat was not sent to them by the Office of the President. Triniscene.com contacted the Office of the President for a breakdown on the cost to taxpayers for the retreat but all calls went unanswered.
For Dr Taylor, the utilisation of any such allocation for training ties into the question of the capability of the Independent Senators.
“Does he see himself as using that (Budget) allocation in performing a role he sees is necessary?”
Dr Taylor’s opinion is also shared by former Senator Indera Sagewan-Alli regarding both the selection of Independent Senators, and, she says, them having to attend a retreat.
“In the past, there was no need for such training intervention from the President as older seasoned independents would fill the role of guidance councillor to new recruits. It would appear that no longer obtains,” Sagewan-Alli told Triniscene.com.
“Maybe it would be more appropriate for the President of the Senate to convene such a retreat and it should be for all senators and about the protocols guiding senatorial conduct in and out of the chambers, but should not seek to interfere in the independence of thought expected of these nine persons.”
Sagewan-Alli says she too shares Dr Taylor’s concerns about the selection of senators for a number of reasons. “I too am concerned that in this lot of independent appointees there can be those whose independence might yet be emerging and therefore susceptible to influence whether by the President or others. That said, I may be wrong on this last count, in my defence, doubt is raised because many of the appointees are unknown in the public domain and as such one does not know what to expect.”
Dr Taylor does, however, say President Carmona may be within his right to have the retreat because the constitution is open to interpretation and therefore he may not be going beyond his authority. “People should be made more aware about why he is doing this, communication with the public is necessary,” Taylor said.
However, Sagewan-Alli says while the questions surrounding the retreat are important, there is a greater issue that troubles her.
“I think that the country needs to be sensitised on the process used by the President in determining who should serve in this capacity,” Sagewan-Alli told Triniscene.com “The constitution says simply that he/she has the discretion to appoint the independent senators from outstanding persons from economic, social or community organization and other major fields of endeavour.”
“I myself don’t understand from where the pool of potential applicants come, what are the criteria set? What is meant by ‘outstanding persons?’ Does one apply for the job? Is one approached by the President and asked to serve? Is there a behind the scenes lobby? The country needs clarification on this. Moreover we need a national conversation on the relevance of the senate and how members should be selected/elected.”
The Economist said there was little question previously about the ability of independent senators when the bench was populated by the likes of the late Dana Seetahal SC, John Spence, and Diana Mahabir-Wyatt among others.
“It was evident and unquestionable their independence of mind and thought, that they were outstanding in their respective fields of endeavour. That they represented underrepresented issues. It is not as obvious with this new lot and so questions arise.”
Sagewan-Alli said that while President Carmona suggested that members of the Houses of Parliament be guided by the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, he missed the opportunity to lead by example with regard to equal treatment of women.
“Of the independents,” she told Triniscene.com, “only three of the nine are women. Is it that there were no other “outstanding” women whom he could have appointed and so immediately show himself to be leading from in front on this important goal? My independence of mind tells me that he could have done better here.”