In the end, the Government’s bid to delay local government elections by a full year has skidded to a halt on slippery language that seemed to convey one meaning but was applied to another.
Whether such ambiguity was intended or unintended, the Government’s defeat at the Privy Council has short-circuited the one-year delay which means that an election could be called anytime within the next three months. Councillors and aldermen, meanwhile, have entered a state of suspense, if not suspension.
Despite assuring the public of the Government’s acceptance of the Privy Council decision in favour of Ravi Balgobin Maharaj vs the Cabinet, Attorney General Reginald Armour has focused on the many points of support from the local courts and two of the five Privy Council law lords for the Government’s one-year extension of the term of local government councillors and aldermen.
Making the best of a bad situation, he emphasised that the defeat was not due to any contravention of the Constitution by the Government, but to differing interpretations of the meaning of the language in the law. Being hung by the petard of language instead of constitutional disregard is an obviously easier pill and may even soften the sting of defeat. Nonetheless, alert to the political ammunition inherent in this judgment, AG Armour has raised a warning about contempt for anyone seeking more mileage than he believes is allowed in this case. The triumphant appellant, Ravi Balgobin Maharaj, promptly fired off a statement accusing him of making up his own interpretations of the law.
Trying to stop the tide of political opinion in this case may be an exercise in futility. Any decision by a government that results in a one-year delay of an election is a highly political issue no matter how much it may be presented and spun as an administrative consequence.
The letter of the law is one thing, politics is quite another, being a case for the court of public opinion and not the courts of law.
The Government’s amendment of the law through the Miscellaneous Provisions (Local Government Reform) Act, 2022, was a troubling development in the political life of this country which, from the beginning, had the scent of a legislative sleight of hand.
At the time, this newspaper, too, was concerned. In a representative democracy, it should not be so easy for a government, acting on the basis of a simple majority, to effectively postpone an election outside of a period of a state of emergency.
By extending the term of local government officials for a year, the Government effectively exercised a right to choose elected representatives which properly belongs to the electorate—a point noted by the Privy Council when it said, “It is inimical to a representative democracy that the representatives are chosen by anyone other than the electorate. It is not for Parliament, still less the Government, to choose the representatives. But, if the amendments to sections 11 and 12 are construed to apply to the incumbent Councillors and Aldermen, the effect will be that they have been chosen as representatives for an additional year, not by the electorate but by the Government.”