Real power rests with the PM, not the president


PRESIDENT John Adams aptly quipped countless years ago but still relevant now: ‘Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.’

With the ascension of former Senate president Christine Kangaloo to the exalted office of President of the Republic and her predecessor demitting office, there has been much brouhaha once again about the president-elect’s plans to do things relegated to the Executive Arm of the State-fight crime, diversify the economy, ameliorate the unemployment levels and to prepare for some Armageddon of sorts to deal with the current Government of the day. The president-elect has to operate within her constitutional crease like all her predecessors.

The outgoing president of the Republic stated emphatically at her first news conference in 2018 that she would act in accordance within the remit of the Office of President of the Republic. Being a lawyer, former prosecutor in the Office of DPP, a Court of Appeal Judge at home and abroad she clearly knew ‘the powers which she has’ and has, like the epitome of a lady, told us tactfully and unspeakingly ‘powers you think I have, I do not’.

Trinidad and Tobago’s President is largely ceremonial. According to our Constitution, executive power rests with the Prime Minister as opposed to countries like the United States where executive power rests with the President of the United States. We pattern a Westminster system where the Head of State, the President just like His Majesty the Monarch of England, performs a largely ceremonial role.

Presidents with executive power like the US President acquire their power from Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution which states that ‘executive power shall be vested in the President of the United States, making the President the head of the Executive Branch of the central government. Sections 2 and 3 enumerate specific powers granted to the president, which include the authority to appoint federal judges, ambassadors, and other high ranking government officials, veto legislation, call Congress into special session, administer the law and to embark upon war.

The President of the United States even has the ‘Power of Impoundment’ which is the refusal of a sitting President to expend funds appropriated by the central government (Congress). President Thomas Jefferson in his 3rd Annual Message to Congress stated that $50,000 which Congress had appropriated for 15 gunboats in Mississippi had been unexpended. President Franklin Roosevelt at times refused to spend money for the purposes appropriated by the Central Government. Successive presidents expanded upon these precedents including President Nixon and President Donald Trump (withholding of funds for a popular energy programme).

Trinidad and Tobago’s President HAS NO SUCH POWER. In many key areas of operations for governance, the President either acts on advice from the Prime Minister or has to consult with both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition before execution- very few cases allow sole prerogative such as the appointment of Independent Senators or to independent bodies that are to be insulated from political interference such as the Integrity Commission or all the various service commissions. In our parliamentary republic, the President’s role is largely ceremonial as outlined previously. Countries with a quasi-ceremonial president apart from us include England, Austria, India, Greece, Iceland, Albania, Bangladesh and Malta just to name a few. Countries like the US with a presidential system of government where executive power rests with the President of the day include Brazil, Colombia, Panama, Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Kenya, Nigeria, Philippines, Paraguay, Zimbabwe, Mexico, Liberia, Venezuela and Uruguay. Let us not conflate duties and responsibilities of public office holders and especially expropriate duties from one and assign to the other-this would be unconstitutional. Until the Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago is amended to facilitate an Executive President as one of our late renowned Prime Ministers attempted to do through the right channels, let us in the laity repeat as gospel the following with the powers we know we have: ‘Here every creed, race and office holder find and know their place And may God Bless our nation’.

Hansen Stewart