“Constitutional Crisis?” by Angelo M. Lascelles
C A V E A T
“You could not live with your own failure. Where did that bring you? Back to me…” Thanos, Avengers: Endgame
The recent conclusion of the general elections in Barbados has resulted once again in a conversation about the extent to which the democracy of the country is under threat due to the absence of an Opposition in the House of Assembly of the Parliament of Barbados. This void in the lower house has by default created a void in the upper house (the Senate) since according to Section 36 of the Constitution of Barbados, the senate is to be comprised of twenty-one members two of which are to be appointed by the [President] on recommendation of the Leader of the Opposition. Our current state of affairs, as was the case in May, 2018 is that we do not have a Leader of the Opposition to make such recommendations.
On the previous occasion, Prime Minister Mia Mottley indicated that she was prepared to amend the Constitution of Barbados to provide for the option of the political party scoring the second highest number of votes nationally, to make those recommendations to the Head of State to fill the two Opposition Senate seats. Indeed, subsequent to that announcement was the departure of Bishop Joseph Atherley from the Barbados Labour Party to fill the post of Leader of the Opposition, thereby not requiring the proposed constitutional amendment. There is no doubt however that the Prime Minister is still committed to making those legislative changes at the first sitting of the House of Assembly.
Following the 2022 election however, the conversation has shifted regarding the lack of a sufficient “check” on the government in the lower house as a result of the absent opposition. It must be appreciated that a key feature of the Westminster style of government that we practice in Barbados is the separation of powers, which in a nutshell establishes and demarcates three separate branches of government; the Executive (Cabinet & Civil Service), the Legislature (Parliament) and the Judiciary (Law Courts), all being a check on the other except in rare cases. The rule in this regard is that no one branch of government is to trespass on the jurisdiction / powers of any other branch, therefore for example, the Legislature cannot interfere with the way in which the Judiciary functions in the dispensation of justice. It is appreciated however that in the Caribbean, what we have could be regarded as a fusion of powers since the only way for an individual to be appointed to the Cabinet is if he/she is a member of any two houses of Parliament (either the Senate or the Assembly), as per Section 65 (2) of the Constitution.
While the ruling party is generally referred to as “the government”, it must be remembered that the technicality here is that the government is limited to the Cabinet of Barbados which adheres to the principle of ‘collective responsibility’, where all members of the Cabinet, despite their personal feelings, must publicly support and promote the policies of government. This however does not extend to those persons who, while being on the ruling side in the Parliament, are not members of the Cabinet; these persons therefore are free to speak their minds and to vote their conscience as we saw in the 2018-2022 Parliament where MPs: George Payne, Trevor Prescod and Sonia Browne often called their parliamentary colleagues who sat in Cabinet to account for their stewardship.
The reality is that Section 64 (2) of the Constitution of Barbados states that the Cabinet of Barbados is to be accountable to the Parliament; therefore, those persons who are not bound by the principle of collective responsibility have a duty to call the members of the Cabinet to account for what they have or have not done in their individual ministries. Traditionally however this has not always been the practice since every person elected to the House of Assembly who may not in the first instance be invited to join the Cabinet, may be silently waiting in the shadows for a reshuffle and an exit of someone, which could pave the way for them to join the “inner circle”; however, the truth is that these members, affectionately known as “back benchers” have as much a duty to hold the Cabinet’s feet to the fire as would any Opposition.
Indeed, due to the size of our parliaments in the Caribbean, the back bench is often not big enough to force a government to submit to its demands but as we saw in the 1994 no confidence motion against Prime Minister Sandiford, it merely takes a few disaffected members to “pull the temple down.”
As such therefore, in the current composition of the House of Assembly in Barbados, there is sufficient scope for the Cabinet of Barbados to be held accountable for its actions by those who do not hold places therein and who are not bound by ‘collective responsibility’; if history is anything to go by, we must have confidence in our Members of Parliament to represent and promote the interest of the country over loyalty to a political party, in the absence of an official opposition.
Our conversation however should whether the First Past the Post electoral system is still appropriate in a modern and evolving Republic.