Trinidad and Tobago
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Persad-Bissessar: We don’t trust Government with local government

Sean Douglas Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar -
Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar -

OPPOSITION Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar said on Monday that the Opposition did not trust the Government to now pass proper laws to validate the actions of local government after the Privy Council recently barred the Government from unilaterally extending councillors' terms by one year.

She spoke in the House of Representatives debate on the Municipal Corporations (Extension of Terms of Office and Validation) Bill, 2023, which provides for local elections in 2023 and extends the terms of councillors and aldermen elected in 2019 and validates their actions between December 2, 2022, and May 18, 2023.

Persad-Bissessar urged that the bill – presented earlier by Attorney General Reginald Armour – be amended to include a stated date for proclamation.

She also urged the bill be amended to remove its last clause which seems to validate actions of councillors after May 17 as she viewed this as validating their future actions indefinitely for the future.

Persad-Bissessar began by saying MPs had to attend the House on a Monday due to a crisis caused by the Government, as subject of the Privy Council ruling.

"The Privy Council found the Government was wrong to deny the people the right to vote."

She pondered aloud whether the error set to be corrected by the bill had been due to a genuine error or due to deviousness.

Citing a June 2019 House debate on the Miscellaneous Provisions (Local Government Reform) Bill, she said all top cabinet ministers had taken ownership of that provision that was now under review in the House, that is, the one-year extension to councillors' terms.

Persad-Bissessar said since then the Government had tried to partially proclaim a piece of that bill – to extend councillors' terms – but the Privy Council had forced them to call a local election. Saying during the 2019 debate she had publicly said the Government might try to delay the election, she recalled, "I warned the population, because we don't trust them."

She said the current bill would come into force whenever it was proclaimed, and she urged MPs now to clearly insert a specific date into the bill to make it clear.

Persad-Bissessar said, "It is very important to ensure we do not inadvertently extend the life of these councillors.

She related that when she had raised concerns in the 2019 debate, then AG Faris Al-Rawi had replied "nonsensical" and the Prime Minister "poppycock!"

She quoted Dr Rowley having then said, "An election will be called when it is due."

Persad-Bissessar declared, "I was spot on. I didn't have a crystal ball but knew we couldn't trust the PNM."

She said a 2022 local government bill had never had "a single line" referring to any extension of the life of local government.

Relating the Government last December saying it needed an extra year for the lives of councils – for it to undertake local government reform – she scoffed, "What has been done? Nothing!"

She suggested the Government has been acting with mal fides (bad faith), as she alleged a pattern of behaviour since the six-six tie in the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) election of January 2021, where she said the Government had refused to use established rules to determine a tie-breaker but had instead brought new legislation to increase the number of seats and rerun the election which the Government then lost. She also alleged delays by the Government in calling by-elections.

Persad-Bissessar said earlier clauses validated councillors' actions from December 2022 to May 2023, but warned that clause five was "very troubling" as it validated councillors' future actions since May 2023.

"Clause five is asking us to validate forward. We are being asked to validate things that have not yet happened."

"Some clarity is needed as the rest of the bill suggests the cut-off time is May 18, 2023, that is, the date of the Privy Council judgment."

She wondered if clause five was meant to now allow Government-run corporations to spend money at whim. "What is it for? What future things are we validating."

Persad-Bissessar said the bill's explanatory notes did not state any extension after May. "But come inside the act and open up the fine print!

"The clause as currently worded conflicts with the rest of the bill." She dubbed the bill, the Lazarus Bill, to bring back to life councils already dead.

Persad-Bissessar related that former prime minister Patrick Manning had delayed local elections for about seven years but was not challenged as he had passed express amendments. "I'd respectfully suggest we'll file an amendment that clause five should be deleted."

She also urged that councillors' terms should be extended only up to a specified date.