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When or would the Speaker act?

Friday, May 4, 2018

Last September, all of us felt sorry to hear that Minister of Public Administration and Communications and La Horquetta/Talparo MP Maxie Cuffie had taken seriously ill and was admitted to a US institution, where he has been undergoing treatment. Photographs surfaced this week of Mr Cuffie in Washington DC looking frail but, happily, able to stand and walk. He will shortly undergo surgery, after which there will be some certainty as to how long full recovery will take. I wish him well and pray for a complete return to health.

Our sympathy ought not, however, prevent an objective consideration of the type of governance allowed by our Constitution.

When Mr Cuffie fell ill he held the portfolio of a Minister. By Section 79(2) of the Constitution, where a Minister is incapable of performing his functions by reason of his absence from Trinidad and Tobago or by reason of illness, the Prime Minister can advise the President to appoint another MP to act in the office of such Minister during such absence or illness.

As Mr Cuffie clearly could not perform his Ministerial functions, the PM advised the President that he, the PM, would perform Mr Cuffie’s functions while the latter remains unable to. Of course the question which arises is for how long should this continue? Days or weeks, months or even years?

Our Constitution does not prescribe any limit, so that conceivably Mr Cuffie could have remained the holder of the substantive office of Minister until after the next general elections, all the while unable to perform his functions, in fact performed by someone else. Put another way (and this is not personal to Mr Cuffie), our Constitution permits someone to be paid as a Minister while, in effect, being incapable of being one.

The responsibility to plug this Constitutional loophole lies with the particular Minister, by resigning, or the Prime Minister, by terminating the Minister’s appointment, immediately when it becomes apparent that the Minister cannot return to work in the near future.

Of course Mr Cuffie has not resigned, and the PM, instead of fully terminating his appointment, after seven months (no less) of Mr Cuffie not being able to perform his functions, on April 9 revoked him as the substantive Minister of Public Administration and Communications and, bizarrely, reassigned him as Minister in the Ministry.

So that under our Constitution our PM saw it fit to appoint someone as junior Minister who clearly cannot perform any of the functions of that junior Minister because he is both ill and out of the country. None of this can happen in the private sector or in the regular public service.

Further, by section 49(2)(b) of the Constitution and Standing Order 115 of the Standing Orders of the House of Representatives, a member of the House shall vacate his seat where he is absent from the House for more than six consecutive sittings occurring during the same session without the leave of the Speaker.

Mr Cuffie fell ill before the commencement of the current session of Parliament which commenced on Friday, September 29, 2017. The 29th sitting of the House in the current session is today, Friday, May 4, 2018. The La Horquetta/Talparo MP would have missed all 29 sittings, and likely many of the remaining sittings in this session.

The question arises: when, in the sad circumstances of any MP’s ill-health, should the Speaker consider refusing leave to be absent? Can and when should a Speaker take into account the fact that a constituency is not being represented in the House? Will any Speaker likely refuse leave to a Government MP bearing in mind that under our Constitution the Speaker is seen as beholden to the Government in power?

And of course the constituency’s interests are ignored while their MP’s seat in the House remains empty without being vacant, because the Government wants to keep its imaginary numbers in the House, and the Opposition knows it will lose any by-election if there is a vacancy and so will not call for one. Hardly proper governance.

Mickela Panday


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