Change, not Exchange – Part 3: Jack Warner

Jack Warner, MP. Photo courtesy Trinidad Guardian
Austin 'Jack' Warner, MP and acting Prime Minister
On 6th June, I wrote in this space about the challenge to the new government to bring about a real change, as opposed to mere exchange.  I ended that column by highlighting the worrying case of Jack Warner, one of my former history teachers, making history by being the first Cabinet Minister to hold other appointments.  My objection to Mr. Warner serving two masters was that it would be impossible for him to give the full energies we have every right to expect from our Cabinet members.

We need to be mindful of the relationship between morals, ethics, law and of course, that scarce commodity, good sense.  Obviously, law is the paramount authority, because we live in a republic ruled by laws, not men. No one should break the law and there are penalties for doing that.  But we also know that in life we make many important decisions without referring to any laws. Those are sound decisions, which form norms, eventually described as custom-and-practice or culture. There are many acts, which are at one and the same time both deeply offensive to right-thinking people (and I think that most people are right-thinking) and in breach of no particular law.  Many acts, with no need for examples, since this is a newspaper any child could pick up and read. There might even be laws against me describing such acts in print.  Who knows?

The reality being that, as important as law is, the proper development of our society depends on far more than just law.  Law is a necessary, but not sufficient ingredient for proper development.  So, what do I mean by proper development?  One of the key signs that we are moving forward would be an increased sense of consequence and the capacity to learn from our errors.  Some examples of our failures in those respects were set out in the prior article in this series.

Some of the main points here were –

  • Board resignations – Jack Warner’s opening statement, made on Indian Arrival Day, was his strong demand that all Board Directors of State Enterprises and Statutory Bodies coming under the control of his Ministry must submit immediate resignations.  In making that call, Mr. Warner relied heavily on custom-and-practice, good practice and established norms.  He was, quite properly, declaring that he expected those high-ranking public servants to behave properly.  No reference to law was considered necessary to see what was the right thing to be done.  Yet when queries arose on Jack Warner’s multiple appointments, we were rapidly boxed-into a strange place where only the law prevails.  That is ‘chinksing’ with a vengeance.
  • Warner’s statement upon his return home on the 15th was most instructive.  Consider please that this was no hasty response to an ambush question and that the entire Piarco reception had been arranged by Warner.  His emphatic reply as to the weakness of Rowley’s case was telling, in as much as it relied on the various examples of PNM wrongdoing that Rowley was accused of having condoned.

    …If Dr Rowley is so concerned about the Parliamentary Code of Ethics, I want to ask him some questions this afternoon. “Why was he so silent when Mr. Manning appointed his wife, not once, not twice, but three times as a minister? “I want to ask him why he was silent when a Minister of Health had his son open pharmacies all over the country to sell CDAP drugs? Wasn’t that code of ethics broken then? “I want to ask him also why he was silent when another Minister of Health had his wife take all the insurance of the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to a company she owned? Why was he silent then?

    See – http://guardian.co.tt/news/politics/2010/06/16/warner-i-have-broken-no-law

    Strange as it might seem, a mere 3 weeks into the honeymoon, we were witnessing a premeditated statement by a senior Minister to the effect that ‘two wrongs make a right’.  Mr. Warner was trying to silence Dr. Rowley, by reference to his condonation.  That is a sad and rickety foundation from which to proceed, but even more telling is Warner’s implicit acceptance that his own position was wrong.

    Warner’s attempt to diminish Rowley’s victory was also interesting –

    Not contented that he removed Patrick Manning from office—he got the easiest political ride in history—he had the temerity to accuse me of breaking some law, or transgressing some code of ethics…

    It has to make you wonder, if that is Jack Warner’s view of Rowley’s victory, what is his view of the PP’s triumph?

  • In the midst of all the lawyers’ opinions, we had an attempt, by Michael Beloff QC, to set these local events in international context –

    …Beloff said he was unaware of any precedent in any common law jurisdiction for a person holding at one and the same time, ministerial office and another post outside of the Government.  “I have little doubt that a main reason is that the demands of ministerial office would usually preclude such dual appointment and the minister could be exposed to criticism for not devoting himself full-time to his government duties…

    see http://www.trinidadexpress.com/news/97564904.html

  • The silence of the lions – Most notable, for me, in all this, was the lack of comment from outspoken people like – Errol McLeod, David Abdullah, Makandal Daaga and Anil Roberts.
  • We voted against the idiosyncratic and bizarre leadership style of Mr. Manning, in which important policies were perverted and new precedents set for a favoured operative.  It seems that the grounds for the decision were limited and the well-established precedents set aside for Mr. Warner and effectively, a ‘special case’ was made for him.

I say again that the State has a duty to be exemplary in its conduct.  We have a right to reasonable, consistent and transparent decision-making by government.  Another aspect of this is that this lawyer-driven decision seems, to me at least, to limit the PM’s power in Cabinet to control her team.

Apart from law, most of the people who supported Jack Warner on this issue seemed to proceed from either the ‘two wrongs’ principle or from the notion that Mr. Warner is a superior performer.  It seems that, in this case, Jack Warner will have to ‘take win’ and all we can do is measure his reputation against his actual performance.

One of the fascinating aspects of this affair is the way in which power has been defined, and re-defined, in the unfolding.  My favourite definition of power was always ‘the ability to set the agenda’.  It has always been the case that the setting of the public agenda was a prerogative of the PM, leaving Leaders of the Opposition lagging one beat behind.  As a result of that pattern, a lot of sound and fury became the norm of Opposition. In his opening statement on 4th June, Dr. Keith Rowley, as the new Leader of the Opposition, set out his objections to Jack Warner’s multiple appointments.  We had comments from every sector of the society on this issue and many group exchanges on radio call-ins and the social media.  Whatever one thinks of the actual objections raised by Dr. Rowley, it is clear that those objections shaped the public agenda. That is no bad thing. In this rounds, it seems that the change we voted for could be coming from unexpected places and with odd timing.

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4 thoughts on “Change, not Exchange – Part 3: Jack Warner

  1. Afra, my wife and I really enjoy your writings. Your piece today is outstanding. T&T is better off for having your fine mind and wonderful writing style. I admire your independence, balance and sense of fairness. Most of all, our country has a severe shortage of good analytical debaters and writers, so thanks for the oxygen. Thanks also for your patriotism, dr

  2. Afra,
    The more things change the more they remain the same, eh….Also a clear case of what good for the Geese not good for the Gander..

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