As I said last week, I will be looking at the Westminster system of Government which we follow in Barbados. Westminster is a democratic system of government modelled after that of the United Kingdom, which gets its name from the Palace of Westminster where the UK parliament is located. We inherited it when we gained our independence as part of our Constitution. The Barbados Parliament consists of the Queen (represented by the Governor General – GG), the House of Assembly and the Senate.
Barbados has what is known as a bicameral legislature; that is, there are two Houses of Parliament. The Lower House (House of Assembly) is comprised of 30 elected members, and The Upper House (the Senate) is comprised of 21 members. In the Senate, the members are appointed by the GG: 12 members on the advice of the Prime Minister, two on the advice of the Leader of the Opposition and seven by the GG “acting in his or her own discretion”. Did someone mention “rubber stamping” recently?
Under the Westminster system, the party that wins the most seats forms the Government and is headed by the Prime Minister who is the leader of the party. Other parties or independents who win seats form the opposition. The concept of the party system, which is the underlying foundation of the Westminster system, is the first issue I have with it, as it brings division. The Word of God says: Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined. Do we think we know better?
The Cabinet is the body having overall responsibility for the management of the country. All major decisions affecting the country are made by the Cabinet, so we know who to blame. Section 64 of the Constitution states:”(1) There shall be a Cabinet for Barbados which shall consist of the Prime Minister and not less than five other ministers appointed in accordance with the provisions of Section 65.” How far we have moved from that! The provisions of Section 65 referred to here include the fact that the ministers can be appointed from either the House or the Senate.
This is another issue that I have. The Senate is usually made up of people who have not presented themselves as candidates for elections or who have failed at the polls and therefore do not have the mandate of the people to make decisions on their behalf. So, my concern is when a member of the Senate, who has not been endorsed by the people, is chosen to be a minister. To my mind, to select such a person is saying to voters: “I don’t really care what you say with your vote, I have the last say.”
One of the greatest aspects (and flaws in my opinion) of the Westminster system is the absolute power that is given to the Prime Minister in the case I referred to above and many other areas. While the Constitution says that it is the Governor General who appoints ministers, it also clearly states that he/she is acting “in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister”, so we know what that means.
An extract from the document Constitutional Reform in the Caribbean that I wrote about last week states that one of the conclusions of the group was: “The Westminster system does not always pass the test of equity and fairness” and highlighted “the excessive authority and overwhelming power constitutionally granted to the Prime Minister, to the extent that, in the words of Prime Minister Gonsalves of St Vincent and the Grenadines Dr Ralph Gonsalves, ‘parliamentary government is reduced not merely to Cabinet government but to prime ministerial government’.”
Gonsalves was also quoted as saying: “In the Caribbean, the prime minister is sometimes referred to as primus inter pares, ‘first among equals’.”
Noting that that old Latin phrase may no longer be applicable, Dr Gonsalves then quoted Sir LLoyd Erskine Sandiford, former Prime Minister of Barbados, as saying: “He is more than Number One. He is It!” I prefer to put it in the language of the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
I have to throw in this other interesting aspect of the Westminster system before I move on, which states: “If a minister does not agree with the policy of the Cabinet, the normal thing for him to do is to resign; he ought not to stay in the Cabinet and claim that he was opposed to certain government decisions.” That, to my knowledge, is still in the Constitution, but has not been adhered to. If it was, there are several ministers who should have resigned, but for reasons known only to themselves have not, nor have prime ministers called for their resignation.
Let me now take a look at the cost of the bicameral legislature that we have. Remember, that means having two Houses of Parliament. According to the Barbados Integrated Government website, https://www.gov.bb/government-main/cabinet/, the Cabinet is made up of the Prime Minister, 16 ministers (of which four are senators) and three parliamentary secretaries (also senators). In addition, there is the Speaker of the House, the Deputy Speaker and the Chairman of Commissions.
On the other side, there is the Leader of the Opposition and the other elected members. However, in the Upper Chamber, only the President of the Senate receives a salary and the Deputy President. Other Senators receive an allowance. Calculating the cost of the Lower House and Upper Houses, not including clerical staff etc., I arrived at just over $6 million a year.
Based on the model which I suggested a few weeks ago, where we have a Prime Minister and an independent person elected for each parish, that cost would be reduced to $2.2 million a year, assuming that each elected official would be a minister. That is obviously a very quick and dirty way of looking at the cost of our Parliament and I have not even included all the clerical and other staff, but the bottom line is that there is a lot of excess that we do not need and cannot afford.
The British Cabinet consists of the Prime Minister and 27 members of Parliament, plus a representative from the House of Lords (https://www.parliament.uk/ ) to govern 66.7 million people (2017). Do we really need 20 plus people to govern Barbados and 51 to fill the seats of Parliament? We looked at reforming our Constitution in 2002 and while it has been tweaked since then, it really has not been reformed. The time has come for radical restructuring of the systems in Barbados that we have complained about for years but tolerated, such as the judicial system, and the Westminster system needs to be among the first to be restructured or, preferably, abolished altogether. We cannot make significant progress with a system that divides us. Now more than ever, we need unity.