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Undermining Accountability and Transparency: The Collapse of the Open Government Agenda

The current administration through its deeds and actions has significantly eroded the progress achieved in accountability and transparency for this country.  Further to our call to withdraw clause 7 of the Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2019 currently before the Parliament, the (Congress of the People (COP) joins with others in condemning the proposed amendments to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) which serves to not only lengthen the Freedom of Information (FOI) request wait times but to introduce the influence of the Political Directorate through the active decision making of the Attorney General,  a political appointee, in the determining whether such a request should be denied or granted.  This undermines one of the pillars of good governance, the strengthening of independent institutions and independent decision making free from political influence. 

This Government should have been advancing the Open Government and Open Data agendas.  Whereas the FOI involves the reactive disclosure of Government information to a single individual or a group in response to a specific request, Open Government is the proactive disclosure of government information to all citizens without the need for requests. It is based on the presumption “open by default,” holding that all government information should be publicly available unless there are compelling reasons to protect such information.  It propels the shift in the democratic process from representative government to participatory government in allowing not only for citizens to elect legislators to govern but to actively help them govern. 

As part of the reform of the Public Service, Political Leader, Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan,  during her tenure as Minister of Public Administration aggressively pursued the design and development of the Open Government National Action Plan 2014-2016.  With the assistance of the Inter American Development Bank (IDB), this plan was achieved and approved, making Trinidad and Tobago the first CARICOM country to sign onto the 66-member Open Government Partnership (OGP), an international platform committed to making Governments more open, accountable and responsive to citizens.  Unfortunately for citizens of this country, this current administration, early in its term of office did not follow through on this agenda and as a consequence many of the proposed initiatives specified in the plan were either stymied or cancelled including moving the Extractive Industries Initiative (EITI) to the next phase, establishment of the Open Government Data Portal and the opening up of Government datasets.  To add insult to injury this administration now seeks to undermine the FOIA. 

A COP Government will not only reverse these amendments but will move to strengthen the FOIA and aggressively pursue the implementation of the Open Government and Open Data agendas.  Going forward as enunciated by our political leader at our relaunch on April 07, 2019, Cabinet Notes and Minutes, unless classified, will be placed in the public domain in addition to all energy contracts and licenses.  She stated that this will lift the veil of secrecy, boost investor’s confidence and facilitate participatory governance of our nation.  The time has come for a system that is not only transparent but inclusive.

COP Leader says Government is now looking to legitimise Paria Trading Operations

Political Leader of the Congress of the People (COP), Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan, is of the view that the Government and members of the Board of Paria Trading have no qualms in operating outside of the Laws of Trinidad and Tobago.  Almost five (5) months after the closure of Petrotrin, the Government is now seeking to legitimize the operations of Paria through the passage of the Miscellaneous Provisions (Petroleum, Petroleum Production Levy and Subsidy and Income Tax) Bill, 2019, which is expected to commence debate today in the Lower House.

Almost eight (8) months ago, the Government was warned that in accordance with the Production Levy and Subsidy Act, the subsidy cannot be determined and paid on the basis of the price of imported fuel. The Act specifically speaks to an ex-refinery price which is determined by a prescribed method set out in the law and is one of the inputs into the formula used to compute the subsidy also set out in the law.   Therefore, the Government may wish to inform the nation as to how subsidy payments to Paria were being disbursed  out of the public purse when there was no legal basis for so doing.   

Furthermore, in accordance with s 9 (1) of this Act, a petroleum production levy, as computed by the method prescribed in s 11, is charged to each crude oil producer and deposited in the subsidy fund to offset the disbursements from the public purse.  Given that there was no legal basis for the computation of subsidy, one can only assume that this income in the form of production levy was either lost to the state or illegally obtained.

In addition , the Petroleum Act and the Petroleum Regulations outline a number of licensing regimes to govern the various types of operations in the energy sector including Exploration , Production, Refining, Marketing Wholesale, Retail, Distribution and Storage.  Which Licensing regime has been granted to Paria and, if any, what are the terms and conditions of that license.  A closer perusal of the Act and the Regulations reveals that none of  the existing regimes is applicable to the new type of business being undertaken by Paria, that is, the “trading business.”   In keeping with the objectives of the law to ensure that at all times the sector adheres to safe and proper procedures, it is incumbent upon the Government to amend the law to include a licensing regime with the requisite terms and conditions for the “trading business.”  The current bill before the Parliament makes no provision for any such licence. 

Once again it is important to remind the Government that the spirit of the law dictates that the operations of the sector be open and transparent in accordance with the principles of good governance.

COP responds to the latest development in the Venezuelan refugee crisis

Chaguanas – The Congress of the People (COP) notes with grave concern the ongoing wavering policy of the Ministry of National Security regarding the refugee crisis currently affecting our Venezuelan neighbours. Media reports have pointed to a substantial increase in the numbers of Venezuelan nationals attempting to reach our shores via boat since the announcement of the Amnesty and Registration process by the Minister which is carded to begin on May 31st. While we support the stance taken by the government in this regard, it is now becoming unclear as to what the definitive policy is regarding arrivals. Media reports have stated over the last couple weeks that vessels arriving to our known legal ports of entry have been stopped and told they were denied entry by our Coast Guard officials. However, media reports also state that dozens of Venezuelan nationals who arrived via an illegal port of entry and were detained yesterday, have since been released and will be allowed to stay and possibly register during the registration process as well. Is it that the Ministry of National Security has essentially developed a “wet foot-dry foot” policy regarding the admittance of these refugees? What message does this send to other potential refugees who are fleeing Venezuela? Is it that once they make it to shore via illegal entry before May 31st, they will be allowed to stay and register? Where is the Minister of Foreign Affairs in this deepening crisis?

The government has taken the right stance regarding the policy of registration of refugees but are taking the wrong approach in the handling of this sensitive national matter that affects not only these refugees who are in need of assistance but also affects the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago. On May 7, 2019, the International Labor Organization (ILO) announced the launch of a new plan including a series of urgent interventions aimed at addressing the security, economic, and social integration needs of Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Latin American countries. The ILO intervention is part of a broader appeal within the framework of the Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan (RMRP), a multilateral plan to coordinate a regional response to the unprecedented and growing “largest displacement of population in the modern history of Latin America and the Caribbean.”

While the report acknowledges the largely cooperative response from the neighbouring countries hosting migrants, most of which have maintained an open-border policy, the increasing influx of refugees is straining national institutions and communities. In order to ensure migrants’ needs are met and that this burden does not foster greater xenophobia and anti-migrant attitudes in the host country, the plan proposes a holistic approach that ensures resources are used to benefit four categories of affected people: “1) Venezuelan refugees and migrants; 2) Refugees and migrants who were living in Venezuela and who are now returning to their countries of origin or moving to a third country; 3) Stateless persons, in particular, children born in a host country and who cannot access citizenship of that country; 4) Host communities.
The response envisioned in the plan is categorized into four areas of intervention. One of these is “direct emergency assistance” which includes all efforts to supply life-saving resources, including both food and non-food items as well as services such as shelter, health and nutrition, education, and legal assistance. Another area is “protection” which covers both physical protection and the enjoyment of rights and benefits. “Socio-economic and cultural integration” the third area of intervention, aims to ensure that migrants become self-sufficient and well-integrated, and that host country is tolerant and accepting towards them. The final area is “strengthening the capacity of host governments” which focuses on efforts to build the capacities of the institutions tasked with managing the influx and settlement of refugees and migrants from Venezuela.

In light of these new developing policies and systems that are being created in other host countries to treat with this worsening crisis, the COP calls on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of National Security to call all relevant stakeholders together and come up with a firm but adaptable policy that encapsulates all the various issues that have been created due to this lamentable humanitarian crisis. Starting with a clear immigration policy by the Ministry of National Security, a health access and education for children policy, a skills classification programme for employment of migrants in conjunction with the Ministry of Labor, a searchable online database for employers who may have need for migrant labor in skill specific settings for example chefs and especially in agriculture where labour is needed, a legal policy from the Ministry of Legal Affairs to inform migrants, who may get married here or have children born in Trinidad and Tobago, of their legal rights and lastly a national awareness progamme from the Ministry of Culture to allow for cultural integration and public awareness of the cultural differences that may exist between both countries. It is our view that this move will clear up any ambiguities that may exist regarding our foreign policy and serve to assist these refugees who need our assistance and support, and strengthen the various institutions tasked with carrying out these policies.

Will “21st Century Policing” ever become a reality?

Chaguanas – The Commissioner of Police (CoP), Gary Griffith recently announced a “major overhaul” of the Organised Crime Intelligence Unit (OCIU) of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) as a direct consequence of the raid of the hotel room of Jamaican Reggae icon Mark Buju Banton. The Political Leader of the Congress of the People (COP), Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan, is asking whether this was a case of:

  1. Incompetence;
  2. Failure of intelligence gathering and analysis;
  3. Unfair targeting and abuse of process; or
  4. A combination of all the of the above.

If this is indeed the case, of grave concern is how many citizens of this country were and continue to be victims of what can be deemed negligence, and who do not have the means and resources to engage high-cost leading attorneys in their defence.  The Police Commissioner should address his mind to this issue with a view to determining how many citizens are so affected. 

This further emphasizes the urgent need to continue the transformation of the Police Service and other law enforcement agencies.  In order to effectively and efficiently institute Intelligence-led Policing, officers must be reskilled and retooled and systems and processes must be re-engineered to embrace technology-enabled solutions and best practices emerging globally.  This requires a comprehensive and holistic reform plan which must take priority if we are to achieve the public trust and confidence in a Police Service that is transparent, fair, independent and free of political bias. 

With respect to the possibility of a rift between Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, the mitigation of this risk required the prompt action on the part of the Ministers of National Security, Foreign Affairs and Trade and Industry.  It is instructive to note that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is staffed with Public Officers trained to avert any possible diplomatic crisis.

On the issue of relations with the media, the issue of a “black-out” is not an option. 
It is important to reiterate that the Police Service is a state agency funded annually by billions of dollars out of the public purse and therefore accountable to the people of Trinidad and Tobago.   Instead of being at war with each other, it is important for institutions to engender collaborative relationships in our country’s interest.   Over the last couple of months, both the Police Commissioner and the media have facilitated a better appreciation of the workings of the Police Service.  However, officials of the Police Service must always be mindful of the attendant risks of overexposure in the form of pre-trial publicity and the possible compromise of sensitive investigations.  In addition, the media must be allowed at all times to publicly report constructive criticism, the impetus for continuous improvement towards the greater good.

We must at all times be mindful of our duty to exercise due care and diligence towards respecting the right to freedom of expression without compromising our nation’s national security interest.

Legislative Hammer cannot solve sex assaults

Speak­ing at the In­ter­na­tion­al Women’s Day sem­i­nar held at the Susamachar Pres­by­ter­ian Church, Seep­er­sad-Bachan said the pa­tri­ar­chal sys­tem and the so­cio-cul­tur­al norms of T&T have con­tributed to the plight of women.

She said women con­tin­ue to face ex­ploita­tion even though nu­mer­ous laws have been passed to pro­tect their rights.

“Many laws have been passed in this coun­try se­cur­ing prop­er­ty rights for women, for ex­am­ple, the Co­hab­i­ta­tion Act which gives women rights to prop­er­ty even if they are in a com­mon-law re­la­tion­ship. It is very pro­gres­sive leg­is­la­tion yet we still have that gen­der gap with on­ly 14 per cent of women own­ing land. Land is an eco­nom­ic pow­er, so women are not be­ing eco­nom­i­cal­ly pow­ered,” she said. Seep­er­sad-Bachan said sin­gle moth­ers con­tin­ues to live be­low the pover­ty line.

“We have 60 NGO’s to sup­port vic­tims of rape and sex­u­al as­sault yet we con­tin­ue to see ex­ploita­tion, abuse and dis­crim­i­na­tion,” she added.

She not­ed that laws alone were not suf­fi­cient to ad­vance the plight of women.

“I went through all the laws to deal with sex­u­al of­fences and all those cre­at­ed to stop do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and sex­u­al as­sault. The bot­tom line is the leg­isla­tive ham­mer can­not solve these prob­lems. As much as we want to go to Par­lia­ment and pass laws, this is not the so­lu­tion. The so­lu­tion lies with­in our own so­cio-cul­tur­al norms. We have to break past the lega­cies of a pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety and the norms left by colo­nial­ism. We have to think equal, build smart and in­no­vate for a change. We have to dis­rupt these so­cio-cul­tur­al norms if we are to achieve that bal­ance by 2030,” she added.

Asked to ex­plain how this could be done, Seep­er­sad-Bachan said women’s groups must en­ter in­to com­mu­ni­ties and break the cy­cle.

Remarks by Party Leader

Sunday November 26, 2017
Members of the National Council
Members of the National Executive
Representatives of Faith Based organizations
Colleagues, fellow COP members, fellow citizens dedicated to our beloved country Trinidad and Tobago. As is this country ever needed God’s help and guidance, now is the time. If this country, our Mother Trinidad and Tobago, ever needed a new solution to the polarisation, the empty rhetoric, the corruption, waste and neglect that is so evident and increasingly getting worse, now is the time. We, the Congress of the People; We, who are beyond race, religion and region and are for all races, all religions and all regions, now is the time to take up the challenge with boundless faith in the destiny of our beloved country.
It is fitting, in fact it is prophetic, that the words I find most appropriate to capture the essence of the challenge that we face now and capsulize our mission, comes from St Paul. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, he said, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
My fellow COP members, the new has come. But in embracing the new, we have to acknowledge the old and build on it. First, I want to thank all of you for your attendance, your support, your encouragement and most of all your commitment to our party, the Congress of the People. The new has indeed come. Today marks the spiritual rebirth of our party. Let me say a special thank you to the representatives of the various faiths who took time out of their busy schedules through prayers and messages contributed to this spiritual rebirth. Today also marks the rebirth of the COP spirit. To members of the COP family present here and the many who were unable to attend thank you for being part of this occasion. Today’s function marks a new beginning, a new dedication within our Party and a new spirit among us all. You have given me a great responsibility and in deed I am humbled – to stay close to you and to serve you…. And for this I say “Thank you”.
We can lament that our voter turnout was low. But this party started with 15 people who facilitated 50 meetings in 10 nights. And with 15 people we grew to over 40,000 members and eventually won 149,000 votes all within one year. But 589 is about 39 times 15. Not only can we do it again but we are ready to take this to the next level.
Against all adversity, uncertainty and the general sense of apathy to politics, these 589 members took time our of their busy schedules to vote in this election. And they must be commended for continuing to believe in the philosophy and vision of the COP. They are part of the mustard seed that will continue to germinate. They have rejuvenated the inner activist in all of us, and sends a loud and clear message that there is hope for us to get things right as we emerge into the political playfield.
There is a realization that the failure of the business-as-usual politics based on race and rewards will not allow us to emerge from the crisis this country faces. There is a realization that our philosophy and mission can be 36 times more effective in taking Trinidad and Tobago into the 21st century. As Black Stalin sang so many years ago, “Our country needs us today more than ever” and the chorus, that should be our rallying cry, our slogan, not just for us but for our beloved country, “We can make it if we try, try a little harder.” We can make it and we will try.
We know the road ahead is filled with challenges. However, we are not daunted. Some say we are at rock bottom. A good place to be as it presents us with the opportunity to rebuild a solid foundation as strong as a rock. In addition, the prevailing toxic political environment present further challenges which we must overcome for this mustard seed to continue to germinate and to eventually bear fruits.
But how do we regain the trust and confidence that so many of our fellow citizens reposed in us. I have learnt that we will be judged by our actions and deeds and not our communications. We can talk the best possible game but to win the hearts and minds of people we must walk the talk and walk the walk.
Community Circles and Organs of the party
You would recall that The COP advocated strongly for community based governance. In accordance with the provisions of the Constitution we will immediately begin the process of re-establishing community circles throughout Trinidad and Tobago. As we engage communities there will be anger because we let them down. However, all good organisations go through the process of forming, storming, norming and performing. The storming is inevitable. But if you take it, if you weather the storm, the performing will happen. We will go out there and we will together face the storm and help communities to perform by demanding performance from those to whom they gave power.
Each circle will be encouraged to take up activities that are in the interest of that community. They will collaborate with NGOs, CSOs, FBOs and other stakeholders within their communities. The central organs of the party, be it the women’s arm, the youth congress, the national executive the parliamentary caucus or the local government caucus, will be required to support the initiatives and tasks undertaken by our community circles. The hub of activity for this party will therefore be focussed on Community Empowerment and supported by all of us who at the leadership level because we are here to serve you
Servant Leadership
This is how we will bring about servant leadership as enshrined in our Constitution.
The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve and to serve first.
As servant-leaders our primary focus is on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.
We will reap our future benefits when those persons we have served, grow intellectually and spiritually, and that while being served, they become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and most importantly, more likely themselves to become servants… and the servant leadership cycle continues. Most importantly this is how new 21st century politicians will be developed as servants of the people.
Over the next 100 days we will strengthen and in some cases, re-establish the organs of our party to serve you in this way.
Principles of Good Governance
In accordance with the principles of Good Governance, all the Institutions and organs of the party including our community circles and constituency executives will be open, transparent and accountable and will at all times abide by the Constitution of our party. Towards this end they will operate by newly designed processes and procedures. Over the next 100 days we will develop and implement technology based systems will to allow for the ease of accountability and transparency. We will also establish an auditing team to ensure that these procedures are adhered to at all times
How we govern ourselves internally is how we will govern a country.
We have advocated and lobbied for campaign finance reform. We will start this process by instituting new procedures for party financing in accordance with this mandate.
Policy Teams, National Conversations, Solution Series
The COP was known for its rich dialogue and conversations. Over the next 100 days we will be establishing our policy teams that will formulate solutions to national problems starting with crime, economy, health, employment and housing. We will not just talk but will act in association with the real stakeholders, the citizens of this country, who are for the most part being ignored, abused and exploited.
There is much untapped potential in this country waiting to be exploited and in so doing allow us to become one of the most progressive countries in the world.
Over the next 100 days we will also be launching the Solution Series, which will involve the many young people who have come forward and volunteered their services in research and development for the various policy teams. Many of them are rich with ideas and enthusiasm. They will help us to sustain the spirit of optimism, the “can do” attitude that will take us forward. They will be responsible for and tailoring the national solutions developed by the policy teams at the community level and to support the community circles in advocating for the implementation of these solutions.
Most importantly, the solutions series will also attempt to identify new opportunities for entrepreneurship towards supporting and facilitating community circles engaged in community entrepreneurship projects.
Cadre of Young Leaders.
This is how we will develop a cadre of young servant leaders capable of leading in various spheres of our society including at the community, regional and national levels. They will learn to practice principled centred leadership and the principles of good governance.
We will also reinstitute the weekly training and development programmes in public speaking in order to ensure that there are no offensive and discriminatory remarks by our public speakers and who will only focus on issues and solutions. In our party there will be zero tolerance for racial and ethnic slurs and character assassinations in accordance with our Peoples Charter.
We use our public platforms to celebrate diversity and to bring about unity, this is how we will engender innovation in our country.
Trinidad and Tobago cannot be rebuilt by our generation alone. All that we say and do from now on must be based on the bedrock of this party’s beliefs and philosophy.
And let me say to all including our young people. Do not be dismayed by critics publicly stating that COP is too idealistic because that is exactly what the new politics for this country urgently needs – ideology
Leadership Council
Members of the COP family, as I have stated publicly, in keeping with the tenets of our party, there will be no maximum leader. I want no blind loyalty to Carolyn. What we urgently need is loyalty to our philosophy, vision and our principles and values.
I also stated publicly that we would establish a leadership team to assist me as political leader in defining the way forward.
I please to announce those who have agreed to serve on a leadership team. Others will join this team after discussions in due course. Let me thank the following for agreeing to serve on this team. Mr Bernard Pantin, Dr. Solaiman Juman, Ms. Hulsie Bhaggan, Dr. Merle Hodge and Dr. Paula Morgan.
As I close, I thank the Almighty for allowing us the opportunity as a party to r-enter, rebuild and re-ignite the flame of hope.
We are still in deep waters and we have a lot to do to reach the surface and then reach the stars. I believe that faith can move mountains. Today this little band of brothers and sisters have rekindled our faith and renewed our vows to make our country the best it can be.
When Jesus met Peter, his brother and father at the sea of Galilee mending their fishnets and he said to them, “Come with me and I will make you fishers of men.” They walked away from their livelihoods and started a new life of unselfish support for their community and for their God.
We have a new mandate ahead of us, to create a political revolution in the minds and hearts of not just COP members, but within all those who thirst for the new politics. Let us together create the new national spirit of unity and trust.
I want to end with a quote from Peter, 3:8 “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.” This is how we will go forward. Talk softly, carry a big smile and a strong and solid message of hope and salvation.
May God bless all of you and our party the COP
And may God bless our great nation Trinidad and Tobago
I thank you.