These are the times that try men’s souls! Long before Lincoln became Honest Abe; before Churchill and Stalin and Roosevelt; Truman, too; long before Bubba redesigned Monica Lewinski’s innocent intern’s little blue dress and made it an everlasting universal topic for folks who had never before cared a damn for fashion; before Richard Nixon turned a rinky-dink Washington flea pit into some kind of monument to White House burglars; before Saddam and bin Laden and Al Qaeda, yes, long before all of them we were warned.
The bell ringer was born in England. His father was, of all things, a corset maker. By pure happenstance he had hooked up in London with Benjamin Franklin, who helped him emigrate to the U.S. It was while resident in Philadelphia that the young Englishman and former seaman turned to journalism—and suddenly became very important.
His name, if you haven’t already guessed from my opening line, was Thomas Paine, one of America’s Founding Fathers, and this was his admonition:
“It is the duty of every patriot to protect his country from his government!” (It would be remiss of me not to mention that some believe the quoted line was misattributed; that credit should instead go to Edward Abbey, born in 1929, died in ’89.)
There is no question, however, that it was Abbey who said: “Society is like a stew. If you don’t stir it every once in a while then a layer of scum floats to the top.”
By published account Thomas Paine had a grand vision for society, was “staunchly anti-slavery, one of the first to advocate a world peace organization and social security for the poor and elderly.”
It is anyone’s guess what Thomas Paine and Edward Abbey might’ve made of last Wednesday’s House meeting, especially when our prime minister—whose legacy will be that he presided over the worst of times—had promised Saint Lucians “better days.” And then there are his chronicled contemptuous countless assaults on our nation’s Constitution, despite his doctorate in constitutional law and his having lectured on the subject at various Caribbean universities.
The prime minister may have led the latest sneak attack on our Constitution last Wednesday but certainly he should not alone stand accused. His House accomplices on both sides of the table are similarly culpable.
They were either too timid or too uninformed of the law or overly concerned with their own or collective survival to risk assuming a protective position on behalf of the Constitution and we the people—reminiscent of a certain December day that will forever live in infamy; when the House adopted a resolution that left already battered and abused taxpayers holding the bag to the tune of $45 million.
Referring to the particular resolution, by which the prime minister Kenny Anthony had sought approval to borrow US$41 million to meet capital works expenditure and “to refinance obligations to the former Hyatt hotel,” this is what Justice Redhead had cynically said of the three out-to-lunch opposition MPs, who were never sufficiently interested to attend court in any event:
“Members of the parliament of Saint Lucia must have known what they were voting for. The resolution was before them. The resolution speaks quite clearly of borrowing to finance capital and recurrent expenditure and also for financing government’s capital works program.
“The members of parliament must be taken to understand what are capital and recurrent expenditures and what is a capital works program. If the members of parliament did understand, and in my view they must have, then when they voted unanimously on the resolution they were passing a resolution for the government to borrow to finance capital and recurrent expenditure and for financing government’s capital works.”
In the first place the judge took liberties with the wording of prime minister’s resolution. Hardly anything he said about the heart of it was true. The three opposition MPs had publicly admitted, just days after the resolution passed in parliament, that they had been misled; that they had misunderstood the resolution—contrary to the judge’s dangerous assumption.
But let us return to last Wednesday’s House session, to the point shortly after the PM-finance minister had presented a bill that sought approval of a loan guarantee.
This was how he ritualistically went about it, reading from a document headed Statutory Instrument 2014: “Whereas it is provided by section 41 of the Finance (Administration) Act, Cap.15.01 that no guarantee involving any financial liability shall be binding upon government unless it is given in accordance with an enactment or unless approved by resolution of parliament; and whereas it is further provided under section 42 of the Finance (Administration) Act, Cap.15.01 that any obligation arising from a guarantee given in accordance with section 41 is a debt charge and all debt charges for which the government is liable shall be charged upon and paid out of the Consolidated Fund; and whereas the Minister for Finance considers it necessary to guarantee the sum of $18,200,000 from the Caribbean Development Bank for the University of the West Indies.”
In the condescending fashion of a bored kindergarten teacher, he added that the resolution was “very straightforward and clear,” that the money was being borrowed to pay for the expansion of facilities at the Morne’s UWI campus, but the bank would not make the loan available without a government guarantee.
He painstakingly explained, for the benefit of MPs (more than one a lawyer or fellow PhD), that the government of Saint Lucia would not be responsible for meeting loan payments to the CDB: “We are there only in the capacity of loan guarantor. UWI is going through a very difficult period . . . a number of governments owe UWI significant sums including, incidentally, this government. The loans have been accumulating for over ten years . . . but I am sure they will be in a position to meet their commitment . . .”
The MP for Castries Southeast was first to respond. “Yes,” he acknowledged, “the building may be in Saint Lucia but when you guarantee a loan and the borrower defaults it is the guarantor who is expected to pay.”
He said he needed a lot more information than the prime minister had supplied: details of the work to be undertaken, proof of the borrower’s ability to meet bank commitments and so on.
He said he was quite familiar with the history of the House when it came to loan guarantees “given in this manner.” Alas, that peculiar history he chose inexplicably to keep to himself.
It has nearly always been the case that until approved by the House, government guarantees, to quote the attorney general in the time of Rochamel, “are not worth the paper they’re written on!”
Following the legendary Rochamel-Frenwell fiasco that had cost taxpayers, according to the 2009 Ramsahoye commission, close to $45 million, the King administration had shut down the escape route that had permitted the Rochamel debacle in the first place: it amended section 2 of the Finance (Administration) Act that earlier had effectively allowed prime ministers to guarantee loans in principle, without a word to the House.
The so-called Finance (Administration) Amendment act of 2011, while it still holds that a guarantee involving any financial liability is not binding on the government “unless the minister grants the guarantee in accordance with an enactment or with the prior approval of parliament by a resolution of parliament,” further tightens the guarantee restrictions in subsection (2), as follows:
“A resolution of parliament pursuant to subsection (1) must give the full details of the amount guaranteed, the terms and conditions of the guarantee, the person or legal entity in whose name the guarantee is intended, and the object and reasons for the giving of the guarantee.”
Obviously, answers and explanations supplied under the law would be otiose unless clear, verifiably true, not specious, absolutely unambiguous, if only to protect we the people from another expensive “misunderstanding” such as had occurred at the time of Rochamel.
To quote from the Ramsahoye report: “We consider that the loss which the government and people suffered in this matter was the result of maladministration and we would recommend that where the government enters into contracts for the procurement of goods and services the law regulating such agreements should be strictly followed.” [My emphasis]
Additionally: “We also consider that where the government guarantees the debts of other persons the resolution under the Finance (Administration) Act should give details of the liability so that both the members of parliament and the national community should understand the liability which was undertaken by the taxpayer in order that the demands of accountability and transparency required by good governance will be satisfied.” [Emphasis mine]
Far from convinced the prime minister had met the demands of section 2 of the finance act, the MP for Castries Southeast returned to his seat in eager anticipation of elucidation. The MP for Castries South then turned on his red light and was on his feet, presumably with the Speaker’s permission (from the writer’s vantage his directions were indiscernible) then seemed abruptly to change his mind. He sat down again, reminiscent of a schoolboy unsure of himself.
TV viewers and other interested Saint Lucians would soon have an explanation for the education minister Robert Lewis’ seemingly puerile behavior, but not from the MP himself.
“Mr. Speaker,” said the prime minister now on his feet, and in the tone of a commander-in-chief. “You will notice I have asked the member for Castries South to resist the temptation to speak.”
So much for the widely propagated doctrine that the Speaker alone is constitutionally authorized to determine when MPs may speak, what they may say, and how they say it.
The prime minister continued in almost reverential silence: “I am going to take the suggestion of the member for Castries Southeast into consideration. And since he is mystified, I am going to suggest a 3-man committee of this House to monitor this project: the member for Castries Southeast as chairman; the member for Dennery North and the member for Micoud South. I will write to the University of the West Indies indicating that they are a committee from parliament; they will dialogue and discuss with UWI and come back to this House and give a report . . .”
The particularly obvious absurdity was never put to the vote. The emperor had spoken, as it were, and no one dared to acknowledge, let alone protest—not even the Speaker—the latest contemptuous dismissal of the House rules.
In any event, section 2 of the amended finance act dictates that the minister satisfy the House, and by extension we the people, that all was in order before members said aye or nay with respect to the proposed guarantee.
Besides, is there not already in place a projects committee charged with monitoring how government-guaranteed money is disbursed and spent?
Amazingly, no one brought up the fact that the prime minister had once again (if you’ll pardon my French) pissed with impunity all over the nation’s Constitution that clearly states how government guarantees are to be handled. Not even the normally meticulous Speaker. Barely had the prime minister zipped up than the Speaker abruptly discovered his own predictable voice:
“Honorable members, the question is that parliament authorizes the minister of finance to guarantee the sum of $18 million from the Caribbean Development Bank for the University of the West Indies. I now put the question . . .” blah, blah, blah. “The ayes have it; the ayes have it.”
Doubtless he surprised the hell out of the nation!
A couple days later it was the Senate’s turn to join the follow de leedah, leedah, leedah masquerade. In the course of the day’s performance, when two independent senators requested information relevant to the same UWI loan guarantee, the justice minister responded from his chair.
By his own measure Saint Lucia’s brightest son, he flatly refused to comply. He said in effect that the inquisitive senators simply were not entitled to the information requested. At voting time the two senators, alleged independents, carefully avoided any stance that might’ve left the impression they were protecting we the people from our government. Though they had let it be known they could not in the circumstances support the bill, at voting time they chose neither to support nor to oppose.