Last Friday the Office of the President, through its Facebook page, commemorated the 100th anniversary of the death of “Digger”, together with expressions of love and remembrance.
Digger was a wallaby that came along in 1920 with the then-Prince Edward to visit Government House (now President’s House). Digger died after being released on the grounds and was buried on the premises. According to Newsday, Digger is honoured annually on the anniversary of his untimely death.
Lucky Digger’s grave is marked with a gravestone and engraved epitaph.
This year, we once again celebrate Republic Day and the attainment of so-called republican status. That achievement is honoured annually, every September 24, although our republican Constitution came into effect on August 1, 1976.
We celebrate becoming “truly independent” by removing the Queen as our head of state and replacing her with one of our own. We proudly declare that by doing so we have removed one of the last vestiges of colonialism and are now truly independent.
Why, then, at the official residence of our Head of State, do we annually commemorate the death of an animal that is considered vermin in its native Australia? Is it because he was brought by a Prince of Wales who, 16 years later, abdicated the throne?
Are we so insecure, even in our main state residence, that we find confidence and a sense of dignity in continuing the colonial tradition of mourning the death of a “rat” because he was brought by a visiting Prince of the Realm? Certainly, our public servants at the Big House can find something better and more productive to do with their time.
So too, in 1976, we found confidence and a sense of dignity in replacing Elizabeth, Queen of Trinidad and Tobago, with our own local constitutional monarch.
Our new head of state was supposed to be a figurehead in the main, with a few powers of independent appointment and a duty to “advise and warn”—just like the Queen in jolly old England.
There was comfort in that familiar arrangement. A local copy of what the British took more than 1,000 years to negotiate, by wars and revolutions, between Prince Edward’s ancestors and the people. The UK seems for now to be content with a constitutional monarch; why shouldn’t we also?
No wonder VS Naipaul described us as “mimic men” in his novel of the same name.
Are we then truly a republic when we are but a mutated copy of someone else’s unwritten constitution?
The Office of the President carries out most of its functions upon the advice of the Cabinet. The President appoints members of independent service commissions, the chief justice and other high offices in his/her own deliberate judgment. The intention was that independent offices be appointed by a non-partisan head of state.
All well and good. You might say someone above nasty politics has to do those jobs. We may have forgotten, however, that in a true republic all power comes from the people. That same “politics” is the lifeblood of a democratic republic.
Unfortunately, some, in their desire to mimic the nobility of our former colonisers, see politics as the pastime of commoners, and so the badge of “independence” in contemporary Trinidad and Tobago has now become the label of the pseudo-aristocracy.
At the opening of the Fifth Session of the 11th Parliament on January 24, 2020, her Excellency the President, in her address, accepted what she called the “badge of honour” of an “auntie/tantie”, describing them as “proponents of sober thinking, discipline, good behaviour and deep reflection”.
I am actually very fond of our sitting president. I am not so fond of how presidents are elected, being by a majority of an electoral college made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives together.
What this means is that the government of the day essentially “appoints” an “independent and non-partisan” president every five years, and amazingly the vote is by secret ballot.
So, the people of this so-called republic do not have the chance to directly choose their “constitutional monarch”—the embodiment of the nation, one who is above the cut and thrust of common politics and the fountain of wisdom with a duty to advise and to warn.
The Draft Estimates of Expenditure for 2019 show that for the three years prior, we spent an average of $16 million annually on the Office of the President. The estimate for 2019 is $20 million. Plenty money to upkeep Digger’s grave and to mourn his death.
After 44 years as a republic, we are content with a version of our local king or queen. Is it because the office itself might be an attractive retirement haven for former prime ministers? “Why fix it when it ain’t broke?”, as they say. Next two weeks we will know for sure if we are indeed “broke”.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Digger’s death was apparently not in vain.
—Darrell Allahar is an attorney.