Though I care not for his idiomatic turn of phrase, still I always listen to the Prime Minister even when he’s got below zero to say.
I have paid attention ever since the mid-90s to Dr Keith Rowley when I was a reporter on the political and parliamentary beat. He starts with a drum beat of moral outrage over the plunder of the public purse. Followed immediately by a discourse that oft disingenuously links cause to solution.
He followed his script to a T last Friday in Parliament during debate on one of these bills with ridiculously lengthy titles, as if to impress, or confuse: the Miscellaneous Provisions (Tax Amnesty, Pensions, Freedom of Information, National Insurance, Central Bank and Non-Profit Organisations) Bill 2019.
The bugbear: the AG will review refusals to provide information to the public to spare taxpayers from losing millions to lawyers.
As the PM did his thing and defended the AG’s oversight of requests for information rejected by a public authority, in order to avoid costly judicial review lawsuits, I couldn’t help but as usual crave more facts.
I don’t sleep with a lawyer, and though I recognise their necessity, I am habitually reminded of Shakespeare when in their presence. However, I have studied math, way too much math. And some philosophy. So I start asking questions. Questions that I think require answers before we use Mr Al-Rawi as a bicycle patch.
1. I would like to know the frequency with which public entities reject requests under the FOIA
Why is this crucial? Well, it will tell us why this legislation is so burning an issue. Are there few or are there hundreds such that the AG may actually become a goal keeper standing before a torn net?
2. What reasons have these entities given the public for rejecting applications?
This is also vital because it may demonstrate an endemic lack of understanding of the Act, which itself will necessitate a more permanent solution. Public service officers are already receiving training in this regard, so why is that not enough to plug the loopholes the PM espies in the original Act?
3. How many millions has the public “lost” and why?
Put logically, had the Attorney General placed an override on past declinations, would that action have changed the outcome of the monies lost in lawsuits?
4. Is the AG’s office equipped to handle judicial review of Government’s departments’ decisions, such that it radically reduces the millions the Prime Minister alleges are being “milked” by lawyers?
For if the AG’s office proves to be a lame duck, then the new FOIA will be a lame duck as well.
5. What if the request is for information from the AG’s office?
How long does the time frame become then? Who will guard the guards?
I also wanted to hear what the man who had laid the original bill in Parliament had to say, former AG, Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj. He seemed as perplexed as I.
But he did make a salient point: the more people that are put in place to review a request, the longer the time period for judicial review of a refusal. Makes sense.
Though admittedly the nitty gritty may elude me, the global is my weather vane, my political compass. I was there in the Parliament-lower and upper House-when this liberating legislation was debated, amended and passed. It was a moment of constitutional celebration. T&T was growing up. It was stated quite clearly in line six of the FOIA: This Act binds the State. Could any sentence be more endearingly powerful?
With this Act, government bodies had to speak up or pay up. And there was nothing they could do about it. Technically.
As a reporter, no more having to get a source to sneak a copy of a document out, an end to scandalous spy games. It plugged our loopholes.
To each sector and each person, the FOIA would bring an individual avenue of recourse. It was for the many and the one. It was Power to the People.
I don’t know that the PM understands or perhaps accepts that.
When he uses language such as, “the public still carrying on” (meaning they objected to an earlier offer by the Government) it gives me the impression that in his gut he sees fair protest guaranteed under the Constitution as pure nuisance.
The PM will counter that he was simply using local parlance, and maybe he was, but sometimes a rose is just a rose or in this case, a thorn is just a thorn.
However, his main homework should be to learn that an idea which seems practical might be neither right nor righteous, and practicality should never be a reason for altering the sacred separation of powers, intended by the Constitution, which in its own way, already and naturally sees sovereignties overlapping like intersecting sets.
This amendment feels like just that. The Government is using money as a reason to undermine if not violate the imperative underlying philosophy of the act.
It’s rather risky for the PM to cite money at a time when his Government has tabled a bill seeking to increase the pensions of MPs. How much will this cost the nation?
One could argue, not as a lawyer, but as an ordinary citizen, that whether our MPs deserve a raise or not is irrelevant. The millions this may cost us should determine whether they get a hike in pensions or not.
There must now be a level policy playing field.