Category: Elections

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.

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