Q: Archbishop J, What’s with our Republic?
The move to becoming a republic in 1976 was a significant next step in our evolution as a nation after independence was achieved in 1962. Both are important milestones. Both signal a direction for self-governance, autonomy and charting our course in the world of nations.
Sometimes we forget just how young we are: 57 years independent and 43 years a republic. In contrast, England took 1,000 years of bloody war before the Magna Carta (1215). Then it took another 800 years to evolve the equality of all citizens.
America took the Magna Carta and built on it to write their Declaration of Independence. This document framed the aspiration of a people and the equality of the citizens.
Yet, the US remained divided between the North and South over the issue of slavery. Was the black man equal before the law? This was a question over which America fought a bitter civil war 1861–1865, one hundred years after its independence.
Venezuela, our closest neighbour in Latin America fought its own war of independence, 1811–1823. That country spent the first years of independence in the grip of strong men, competing for power, leaving a legacy of feud that still persists in some ways in the present day.
Then there is Malaysia, which became independent on August 31, 1957. Its population is diverse and much larger than ours, but with similar ethnic tensions. Their focus is justice through education and development of the most vulnerable citizens. Similarly, Singapore, independent in 1965, with a diverse population, has managed to chart a largely positive national course.
Given the uneven development of nations, we are not doing that badly. But we are not doing well either.
In 380 BC, Plato wrote The Republic, the most famous dialogue on politics, governance and the meaning of the good. In this work, Plato sees the purpose of the state as fostering justice for all citizens.
To do this, however, the character of the citizen must be fostered and there has to be just laws. Justice can only be achieved by just people. Thus, character formation is vital for happiness of citizens and justice in the state, and happiness is dependent upon justice and this must be shared by all.
If there is a great challenge to us as we celebrate 43 years as a republic, it is in this regard. We do not have any sense, individual or collective that pushes towards, justice and character formation. Nor do we have any sense of the individual good, as dependent upon the common good: My happiness is dependent upon the happiness of all.
Our current aspiration for individual wealth and happiness, is the greatest challenge facing us. This Republic Day is a call to grow up.
If justice for its citizens is the goal of the republic, we have a long way to go. In Trinidad and Tobago today poverty is a crime. There are hundreds of people in prison simply because they are poor. They do not have the money to have a property free from debt to post bail. The laws allow for money in an account, but the judges do not.
The delays in the system mean that these people are in prison for longer than the sentence if they were found guilty. People have been let off as innocent, after years in prison. This is a flagrant injustice to the invisible, the powerless.
There are laws in process to deal with this continued injustice that we have accommodated. The Bail (amendment) Bill 2019, if and when passed would go a long way to addressing this sorry state of affairs.
It is now a matter of urgency that this Bill be brought into law and all the apparatus necessary be employed. One innocent person incarcerated for an extended time is an injustice to all.
There are also unused existing laws. The Sentencing Commission Act came into operation in November 2000. It was updated in 2015. It addresses many of the ailments that we now face in the justice system.
Following is a summary of 5e of that Act:
(1) Accurate research to determine the facts on the ground to influence not only sentences that have rehabilitation as an element, but also to identify the age groups and social circumstances.
(2) The relevance of the current justice system and how it needs to adapt to the realities. What are the causes of delay? Does legal aid work to equalise litigants or does it marginalise them by weaker lawyers being assigned to the poor?
(3) What is the current effect of child welfare and probation systems on informing and supporting the sentencing process?
(4) What is the actual effect of delays in trials on crime?
If this commission were funded and operational it would have a dramatic impact on justice in our Republic. This is the evolution we need now in 2019 to move towards a society where justice of every citizen is vital to the health of the common well-being. We have had six governments since 2000 when the Act came into operation. If governments cannot enact the laws, then who can?
To achieve justice in the republic, according to Plato, we need (1) just laws that are strengthened by (2) the institutions and resources that are needed for them to work, and (3) citizens formed with sound character.
This is also a major challenge in Trinidad and Tobago. In relation to (3) we have clearly misunderstood certification for education.
Our education system is a mass production factory that churns out citizens who often do not have the required competency for the next stage of their learning, and whose skills are a mismatch to the needs of the economic system.
Universal education is a vital commitment for any modern democracy. But it must be education, not certification, that is relevant to the needs of the economy and society.
For Plato education is to lead a person out of the cave of ignorance towards mastery of knowledge, skill and character. Plato understood that there are different needs in society for which different people need to be educated differently. But all are educated for character which is essential for justice in society.
Exaggerated responsibility for the common good
As I have said many times now, we have been a society of liberty so long that to recalibrate we will need to live exaggerated responsibility for the common good. This is how we will achieve justice. It is how we will achieve human flourishing of all citizens.
It is how we will move from poor distribution of the resources of the state to a form of distribution that creates human flourishing for all especially those most on the margins.
To become the republic we are destined to become, we need to radically re-envision how we educate our citizens, young and old. Character formation for a just society where all citizens flourish needs to be our goal. We also need a different commitment to just laws and the institutions to ensure they are implemented justly.
Key Message: For a republic to flourish it needs just laws that are implemented justly by people of sound character.
Action Step: Reflect on your attitude to justice and doing the right thing because it is right (Character). Take some concrete steps towards growth in each area.