On this national holiday, I wish every citizen of our beloved Trinidad and Tobago a Happy Republic Day.
Our celebration this year is significantly marred by the unprecedented, horrendous crime crisis that has engulfed our once peaceful nation. A sense of general fear and unease prevails in the national psyche.
Indeed, this may convince us that we have nothing to celebrate as a nation facing some of its darkest days in our history. Yet, Republic Day is perhaps one of the most powerful reminders of the very reason we must, against all odds, fight on as a collective people to continue to build our now threatened democracy.
Trinidad and Tobago attained Republican status on August 1, 1976. However, the holiday was surreptitiously selected to be celebrated on September 24, thereby commemorating the anniversary of the election of the PNM on 24 September 1956.
That aside, it ushered in our new Republican Constitution, after years of struggle with the shortcomings of our Independence Constitution, which had afforded simply too much executive power to the Prime Minister.
This had led to significant abuse of power by the Government of the day, resulting in the tumultuous years of social rebellions particularly in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It took continuous and determined fighting to establish democratic principles by the Opposition forces of the day to ensure that our Republican Constitution took effect.
Therefore, by establishing the Office of the President, a new set of independent checks and balances was intended to be established in our system of government. From Independent Senators, to the Auditor-General, Service Commissions, the then-new institutions of the Integrity Commission and the Ombudsman, and the Joint Select Committees, these were designed to add an additional layer of non-political oversight over the Government, in addition to the official Opposition.
This was to allow the people’s interest to prevail in our Republic, and not the politicians. However, it still fell short of what was required. Even in 1976, the much more substantial constitutional reforms of the Wooding Commission were rejected by the then PNM Government.
Then, in 1995, under the first UNC Government – in which I had the honour of serving – we introduced major constitutional reform to advance the interest of the public. This includes the Freedom of Information Act, the Judicial Review Act, the Equal Opportunities Act, and the radical expansion of the Joint Select Committees of Parliament. These have revolutionized politics and government in Trinidad and Tobago.
Under my Prime Ministership from 2010-2015, we further undertook a major Constitutional Reform exercise to bring the whole society on board. We updated the Standing Orders of Parliament for the first time since Independence, introducing new mechanisms such as Prime Minister’s Questions.
We introduced Proportional Representation in the local government system for the first time in our history, to ensure that every vote – the popular vote – counts. We passed historic Procurement Legislation to prevent corruption. We also introduced many other important mechanisms which were in the process of being debated in parliament, such as term limits, fixed election dates, and equal budgetary allocations to each Member of Parliament.
Unfortunately, these independent institutions and all our significant gains are today once more under direct threat, having been abused by this Government to further partisan political goals.
The Procurement legislation was gutted, Service Commissions are being bypassed in favour of so-called “Special Purpose Companies” like the TTRA, our President is a long-time loyal member of the ruling party, and Parliamentary accountability is being consistently and dangerously diminished.
Indeed, this regime has taken our once promising, beautiful Republic down the disastrous, destructive road of dictatorship. We, the people, cannot continue to stand for that!
Today, I call on the Government to immediately cease its ongoing assault on our citizens and our Constitution. They must immediately recommit to their duty as a democratic government and implement effective policies to grant citizens instant relief from the traumatising economic hardships and crime crisis that continue to plague our land.
In celebration of Republic Day. I call on the Government, therefore, to effect as a matter of urgent policy, an increase in the minimum wage and the removal of VAT from all food items. The working men and women of this nation have been calling for these economic measures over the past few years.
And I give citizens the promise that when the UNC returns to office, we will restore a democratic direction to the political development of Trinidad and Tobago, to ensure that people’s rights to liberty, equal opportunity, and equal access to justice and to our national resources are more firmly embedded in our government, for good.
Happy Republic Day, Trinidad and Tobago. May we always be proud of our great history, and always be compelled to continue our struggle for true freedom, so that decades from now, our future generations will look back and be grateful that we never gave up on the great nation that they will ultimately inherit.
Kamla Persad-Bissessar, SC, MP
Leader of the Opposition
23rd September 2023