straight to the point – from different points of view

The power to abuse by David Walker

The power to abuse by David Walker

It is said that “with great power comes great responsibility”. It is further said that “power corrupts but absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The second saying seems to suggest that we should not expect the powerful to act with any degree of responsibility. Certainly our experience here in Trinidad and Tobago leads us to believe that those who wield power do so without any sense of responsibility to the powerless.

 

But do our leaders exercise absolute power and if so, what are the consequences? I will discuss two situations where political power has been wielded absolutely in Trinidad and Tobago, and invite you to consider the consequences. I am particularly concerned about the impact on the citizens of the nation where we have become victims in almost every sense, exhibiting collectively what has been described as “battered wife syndrome”.

 

The first abuse of power is by the Tobago House of Assembly. Do not be distracted by the ruling party’s 12-0 majority. Their actions predate the recent election. It concerns the attempt to build a concrete and glass shopping mall on the pristine beachfront of Charlotteville at a projected cost of 20 million dollars. They evicted long standing vendors under threat of demolition without first obtaining any of the necessary approvals from Town and Country Planning, EMA etc. and with nothing of substance by way of consultation.

 

A lobby group, the Charlotteville Beachfront Movement (now a registered NGO) was formed by two affected vendors and supporters to fight the plans. With miniscule resources, they took the THA to court and won. The judge ruled that the project was illegal and was to be stopped until such time as all necessary approvals were obtained. That was in May, 2013.

 

In open and contemptuous defiance of the judge’s order, the THA continued work for about another week during which time they moved heavy equipment on to the site and dug a trench 6 ft deep by about 45 ft in length and about 20 ft in width. The trench immediately filled with water from undetermined sources, becoming a breeding ground for mosquitoes, and a general health and safety hazard.

 

Not content with this defiance of a court order, they have to this day not obeyed his subsequent clear orders to deal with the health and safety hazard that their illegal work had created. On one occasion they even had a contractor in court to promise that they would pump the water out daily, a less than adequate response but an improvement on the status quo. In the ten or more months since that promise, the trench has been pumped no more than six or seven times.

 

This also comes at a time when all citizens are being exhorted to report recalcitrant home owners who leave derelict vehicles and the like that accumulate stagnant water where mosquitoes breed threatening the population with dengue, Chik-V and other viruses. The vendors have repeatedly reported the trench to visiting Health Inspectors who say that there is nothing they can do. Absolute power evidently speaks with a powerful voice.

 

The THA and its ruling PNM are not alone though, in its abuse of power. Not to be outdone, the PP administration in POS and its ruling elite have literally torn up the rule book in front of our very eyes. I take you back to the CLICO matter and the critically important judgment of Justice Rahnauth-Lee in favour of a group of policyholders / depositors, call them what you wish.

I remind you that the judge ruled in favour of the plaintiffs who claimed that their contractual obligations should be upheld and that CLICO should pay them their due. Faced with the judgment the Ministry of Finance issued a statement saying that CLICO would appeal. Of course that is their right and the parties prepared for further arguments on the matter.

 

That is when the government decided that it had absolute power and that it would exercise it in this instance. Rather than appeal the judgment as they intimated they would (probably fearing defeat), the government effectively moved to place themselves and their appointees above the courts of the land. They passed into law the most draconian Act to reach the statute books of this or any other Commonwealth nation in my experience. They simply insulated their actions and those of their appointees, regardless of nature or gravity, rendering them ineligible for adjudication by the courts. They even rendered all existing judgments unenforceable.

 

I stand to be corrected, and I would love to hear from legal experts on this matter, but it appears to me that the Central Bank (CB) and the appointed directors of CLICO can do absolutely anything with impunity. I know for example that some creditors have not been paid with no reason given. I have one client, whose claim has simply been ignored, and they have no recourse. In the extreme, CLICO directors can cherry pick who and what they pay with no judicial or other oversight.

 

So that readers can understand my concern, and the extent of absolute power granted to CLICO directors and CB staff, I now copy a relevant section of the offending Act (the Central Bank Amendment Act (CBAA).

“(5) On and after the publication of a notification under subsection (1)—

(a) no creditor, shareholder, depositor, policyholder or any other person shall have any remedy against the institution in respect of any claim, and without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing, no creditor, shareholder, depositor, policyholder or any other person shall commence or continue any action, execution or other proceedings or seek to enforce in any way whatsoever without limitation in Trinidad and Tobago, any judgment or order obtained in Trinidad and Tobago or any other jurisdiction,

against the institution or its successor or the transferee of the whole or any part of any

property, assets or undertaking of the institution for the recovery of any claim or in respect of any other liability, until the publication of a notification under paragraph (b) or section 44G(1) in relation to the institution;”

 

For clarification, references to the institution mean CLiCO. The inclusion of the phrase “its successor or the transferee” is worthy of examination and shall be discussed at another time.

 

Not only are the directors of CLICO impervious to ant legal action, but they have also been rendered effectively invisible to any oversight body. Remember that they are joined in their immunity by their supposed regulator the CB. Furthermore, there is no mandatory reporting of the use of the protection, so nobody in or out of Parliament is aware of what laws they have broken or what are the consequences or losses to third parties. Even James Bond’s famous Licence to Kill came with a modicum of oversight.

 

The directors of CLICO and CB are beyond the courts and the laws of the land. Even our MPs and Cabinet members appear to have no power over them. It is noteworthy that our AG demanded that they assist with police fraud investigations. Yet it was reported that the Fraud Squad had to raid their offices in search of documents. We heard nothing from the AG. Could it be that he discovered that even he had no power over them? I repeat that I would love to hear more informed legal opinion on this matter but the elements are very clear.

 

The impact on those dealing with CLICO including staff has been severe. Even the Industrial Court suspended all ongoing and new matters to do with CLICO. Employees who had already won judgments could not enforce them. All this was done, we were told because the country could not afford the 14 billion dollar cost of complying with the Rajnauth-Lee judgment. We are now told that this law breaking alternative is set to cost 24+ billion.

 

These two acts by our major parties and their supporters share an underlying narrative. It is that our ruling elites have made or consider themselves immune from the laws and the judiciary. This results inevitably in the rest of us becoming victims under their rule. Even those who eat lavishly at the table alongside the real power brokers are victims themselves, unable to wean themselves away from what they know to be corrupting influences.

 

The majority of us sit is cowed silence, wringing our hands in disgust and despair at each successive example of the abuse of power by those we should be able to trust. The nation is descending rapidly into a spiral of hopelessness, akin to that of the battered wife mentioned previously. Yet there is hope.

 

Lessons can be learned from each victory over what we thought to be absolute power. The members of the Charlotteville Beachfront Movement were told by all and sundry, including legal luminaries that they had no chance against the might and resources of the THA. How they have proven the naysayers all wrong. They have shown that absolute power is an illusion that persists only as long as we allow it. As a nation we must now learn from their fortitude, and the experience of others like them (the fishermen of Tobago have also won an important victory against the THA).

 

The greatest fear of those who wield what they portray as absolute power is the realization that absolute power resides only with the population in support of a just cause. Friends, the time is approaching, if it is not here as yet, for us to use that absolute power. Let us no longer be abused by power.

 

You can find the Charlotteville Beachfront Movement on Facebook. Go to their page, join them. Speak with them, learn from them, support them.

1 Comment

  1. Correction – I have been reminded by a fellow columnist that The CB Amendment was ruled unconstitutional by Justice Ronnie Boodoosingh over a year ago in the Stone Street Capital case and that Boodoosingh’s judgment has not been appealed.

    Despite that, the Central Bank and their appointees treat with claimants in a manner which suggests that they have disregarded that judgment completely.

    DW

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