Was attorney general asleep at the wheel?

According to a well-loved story by the Brothers Grimm, in the Middle Ages when the good people of Hamelin were overrun by nasty rats in ties, the villagers contracted a weirdly attired musician with a fake diamond in his ear to entice the vectors out of their holes and into the Weser River where they perished in their millions.

It seems the so-called Pied Piper’s music was to medieval pestilence as irresistible as is the word “Rochamel” to their current-day local equivalent, those perpetual defenders of the indefensible, sometimes referred to as the PDIs.

Not that they are immediately discernible from the common rat. But for their predictable reaction once the R-word has reached their tympanic membrane it would be extremely difficult to tell a PDI from, say, that section of our Rock of Sages society that believes in the magic of boloms and gens gage. A huge section, I might add, doubtless deserving of credit for our huge strides in the field of science.

But I must resist digressing too far. I was hinting at the strange behavior that the mere mention of Rochamel inspires in certain sections of our great and wonderful nation that has produced not just one but two Nobel winners.

Even the most articulate among us will unabashedly resort to gibberish in their efforts to confuse the Martinus Francois v The Attorney General suit (actually it was Francois vs Tony Astaphan!) with the other matter that last year ended up before the Ramsahoye Commission.

In the first instance it was Francois’ contention that finance ministers did not have the legal authority in Saint Lucia to guarantee bank loans for private individuals or companies.

The high court judge Indra Hariprasad agreed but was overturned by our appeal court, albeit controversially.

The last mentioned had determined that finance ministers were indeed constitutionally authorized to guarantee loans against the Consolidated Fund. However, should such entities, for whatever reasons, find themselves unable to meet their bank commitments the government’s guarantee would be worthless without parliamentary approval.

Yes, so on that basis Francois’ case bit the dust. But the lawyer’s loss proved the people’s gain. As a direct consequence of Francois’ defeat it became clear something needed to be done about the loophole in the finance act that had permitted reckless finance ministers to take officially unapproved risks with the people’s money.

That particular requirement was further underscored by the Ramsahoye Commission when in effect it recommended that finance ministers must in all circumstances receive prior House approval before giving loan guarantees.

This week the Senate agreed that “a guarantee involving any financial liability is not binding on government unless the minister grants the guarantee in accordance with an enactment or with the prior approval of parliament by a resolution of parliament.

”Moreover: such resolution “must give the full details of the amount guaranteed, the person or legal entity in whose name the guarantee is intended, and the object and reasons for giving the guarantee.”

Who could ask for anything more?

Had the clauses, as reproduced above, been in place back in 1997 the Helen Air debacle might never have happened and local taxpayers would’ve been spared the multi-million-dollar fall-out from the Rochamel catastrophe.

Millions of dollars irrecoverably lost would’ve been saved had the people’s money been earlier protected from megalomaniac finance ministers that effectively controlled the Consolidated Fund.

Yes indeed, there is good reason to celebrate. But let us not be too quick to break out the Moet. For just when it seemed the Stephenson King government had enacted what is arguably the most important law in a long time, a canard raised its alligator head.

According to Clause 3 of the amended act: “The minister may grant a guarantee on such terms and conditions as he or she may see fit.”

What a load! If according to the preceding two sections guarantees involving financial liability are not binding on the government unless given with “the prior approval of parliament”; if the law demands “full details of the amount guaranteed, the person or legal entity in whose name the guarantee is intended, and the object and reasons for the giving of the guarantee,” then what to make of Section 3 that unconditionally authorizes finance ministers to do as they please with the people’s money, including (I imagine) guaranteeing their own personal loans, and without the need even to inform parliament?

The question must also be asked: Where was the attorney general when the amended act was being debated in the senate?

Dear reader, I promise we’ve not heard the last of this most recent attempt by politicians to prove they can get away with pissing in our eyes and calling it rain!

Editor’s Note: The preceding first appeared in the STAR on 26 February 2011. Did the author’s prediction come true during Tuesday’s parliamentary debate on “belated guarantees?” Please see pages 8-9!

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