Opposition responds to invitation by AG on SSA Bill… One meeting for all Senators, with the media present

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Leader of Opposition Business in the Senate, Wade Mark, has called on Attorney General Faris Al Wari to host one meeting with both Opposition and Independent Senators to discuss the Strategic Services Agency (Amendment) Bill.

Mark said the meeting which is supposed to be held “in camera”, should be held in the presence of the media and public, as debate on this debate was held publicly in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Mark wrote to Al Wari on Sunday, one day after he received an invitation from the AG to attend a meeting in the Parliament building at 11.30 am on Tuesday – two hours before the resumption of the debate of the SSA bill in the Senate.

The following is the letter sent by Mark to the AG on Sunday:

May 8, 2016

Honourable Faris Al-Rawi Attorney General
Cabildo Chambers,
23-27 St. Vincent Street,
PORT OF SPAIN.

Dear Honourable Attorney General,

Re: “Invitation to Presentation on the Security Services Agency (Amendment) Act 2016”

I write to respond to your email invitation dated May 7, 2016 concerning the matter at caption. You may wish to consider that the bill being presently debated is the “trategic” Services (Amendment) “Bill”, 2016 and not the “Security Services Agency (Amendment) Act 2016” as you incorrectly indicate at caption.

It may well be that such an oversight is the result of the haste with which this matter is being presently treated by the government. I thank you for your kind invitation to discuss the bill with a group of unnamed technocrats and experts.

However, an eleventh hour invitation for a meeting which comes after a full day of debate in the Senate raises some very serious concerns, which are highlighted hereunder:

1. We note that in today’s Trinidad Express, Ria Taitt reported that Independent Senators have been invited to attend a similar meeting tomorrow at 4 p.m. Apparently, the media and Opposition Senators have been barred from attending said meeting.

Such a meeting could be misconstrued as the Government’s attempt to strong-arm the Independent bench into voting for this bill. We wish to register our extreme disapproval for a secret meeting organized by a Government Minister to which only Independnt Senators may attend.

Such a meeting is contrary to the principles of transparency and openness upon which our democratic process built.

2. The meeting with Opposition Senators has been conveniently scheduled at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, just two hours before the Senate is to sit for the second day of debate on the bill. Forgive me, but in the circumstances it appears the Government is intent on preventing the Opposition from seriously considering the information presented at the meeting prior to debate.

Perhaps you could indicate how such a meeting and the material presented at this stage of the proceedings would assist those who have already contributed to the debate. No attempt has even been made to provide to the Opposition the proposed material that is to be presented at this meeting. This cannot in any circumstances be fair to the Opposition.

3. Worse, the Government has not indicated the names and expertise of persons invited to the meeting. Further, we note that neither Ria Taitt, nor your goodself has indicated whether the invitees are only persons employed by the Strategic Services Agency employees or whether outside experts have been invited to attend.

We would not like to find out that the Government has accidently compromised the process of law-making in Trinidad and Tobago by inviting biased individuals to what-would-be a caucus of Independent Senators and persons selected by the Government.

4. Further, disclosure of the invitees and the material to be presented would allow Independent and Opposition Senators the opportunity to properly prepare questions and issues of concern to raise at said meetings.

5. We find it passing strange that the Government has decided to hold two meetings regarding the bill with separate invitation lists and no level of transparency to what is proposed to be discussed in the respective meetings. You have indicated no reason why such a level of secrecy is required nor why there must be two meetings, in fact we only learned of the meeting with Independent Senators from the media.

As the Guardian of the Public Interest we expect better from your goodself. Having regard to the foregoing, the Opposition demands that:

• a single meeting be held where members of the public, media, Independent and Opposition benches are entitled to attend; and

• you indicate the names of persons invited to the meeting, their official role and their area of expertise, forthwith, so that we may begin preparations even at this late hour on Mother’s Day.

The Opposition considers that the law making process is one that must not be shrouded in secrecy. Our role is to represent all of the people of Trinidad and Tobago and any material that the government considers relevant to the public debate on this bill must be disclosed to the public as well, as the laws that we collectively pass as a Parliament are constitutionally mandated to be for the peace, order and good governance of Trinidad and Tobago.

The consequences to the people of Trinidad and Tobago of this legislation being passed in its current form are far to great to proceed in the manner proposed by the Government. The Opposition intends to attend the meeting scheduled at 4 p.m. on Monday May, 9, 2016 at Tower D, International Waterfront Complex, Port of Spain along with the Independent Senators.

To suggest otherwise would be in keeping with the Government’s thinly veiled attempts to strong-arm support for a bill which should properly be before a Select Committee of the Senate.

Kind Regards,

Wade Mark Opposition Senator

WADE MARK

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