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Deputy politics

Deputy politics

By Peter Wickham | Sun, October 28, 2012 - 12:01 AM

The 1982 Trinidad and Tobago Road March tune penned by Penguin suggests that a deputy is essential, and while I fully appreciate that he was making reference to non-political spheres of life, his words have often been associated with Caribbean politics, to the extent that most people now presume that a Deputy Prime Minister is indeed vital.

This presumption is ironic, since there is no constitutional or other legal requirement that there be such a post of deputy in either the Government or Opposition.

As with all senior Government posts, it needs to be filled on a temporary basis when the substantive office holder is not available. However, this does not mean that that a permanent person has to be designated to this post.

In the case of the Governor General, who is constitutionally superior to the Prime Minister, the Constitution initially conveys the right (to the Prime Minister) to identify any other person to act in that post, but specifies the Chief Justice, followed by the President of the Senate, as those mandated if no other person is available.

There is, however, no post of Deputy Governor General in our system, and while the Constitution allows for the appointment of a Deputy Prime Minister, there is no constitutional requirement that there be such a person or post holder.

Moreover, as is the case with the Governor General, the Constitution does not attempt to be persuasive regarding the Acting Prime Minister, other than to state that the appointed person must be a member of the House of Assembly.

The Prime Minister can therefore appoint any MP as Acting Prime Minister, or indeed appoint any person (or persons) as Deputy in a way that is entirely consistent with his own preference. As such, since Independence, we have had Deputy Prime Ministers, and on occasion there has been none; but on every occasion that the Prime Minister has himself been unavailable, there has been an Acting Prime Minister.

In the past, Prime Minister Errol Barrow has appointed Sir James Tudor as his Deputy

and thereafter Sir Lloyd, who succeeded Barrow on his death. Tom Adams was comfortable with Sir Harold St John, who also succeeded him. However, Sir Harold never appointed a Deputy, while Sir Lloyd did, in the shape of Sir Philip Greaves.

Owen Arthur appointed Dame Billie Miller almost immediately upon assumption of the office, but later conveyed this title to Mia Mottley, while elevating Dame Billie to the post of Senior Minister.

David Thompson’s action therefore in not appointing a Deputy immediately was somewhat similar to that of Sir Harold, since they both kept their options open regarding an acting appointment, which we presume was politically motivated.

It is this political motivation that creates the intrigue with the politics of the number two post.

There have been other regional prime ministers who have opted not to appoint a deputy, such as Kamla Persad-Bissessar in Trinidad and Tobago.

However, Thompson’s actions differed in that he never overtly discussed the issue and thereafter appointed the same person (Freundel Stuart) to act on any occasion that he travelled; and where both travelled, Ronald Jones was appointed.

In the case of Persad-Bissessar, she stated her intention to rotate the acting appointment and thereafter identified alternative ministers when she travelled. As such, Thompson’s actions were somewhat odd and it almost appeared as though he was “auditioning” Stuart, whom he subsequently appointed as deputy.

This background information brings us to the contemporary situation and the case of Prime Minister Stuart who, like his predecessor, opted not to appoint a deputy, while (initially) identifying the same individual to act whenever he travelled. He has now shifted his preference to Richard Sealy, and this has raised suspicions regarding his dissatisfaction with Jones and questions regarding the rationale behind his preference for Sealy.

There can be no question that the Prime Minister has absolute power and discretion in this case. Moreover, one will agree that he would normally wish to appoint someone he trusts to “mind the shop”, since that person effectively inherits all the Prime Minister’s power while he is away, with the presumption that he should know how to “behave”.

Having said this, recent thinking in political circles has suggested that there is perhaps no inherent danger in appointing one’s “adversary” to act since there is effectively little that s/he can do to change the status quo.

The relevant instances here would be the appointment of Mottley by Arthur although she was considerably more junior than several of her Cabinet colleagues and clearly an option for future leadership.

Reference is also made to the appointment (and retention) of St Kitts and Nevis’ Deputy Prime Minister Sam Condor, who has been one of Prime Minister Denzil Douglas’ fiercest critics in recent times, but continues to act as prime minister while he is away.

The question of who “acts” and who (if anyone) is appointed Deputy Prime Minister will continue to carry considerable political interest, which belies the constitutional “unimportance” of this appointment. Clearly “we” ascribe some level of importance to the office, and it is perhaps for this reason that the Americans have institutionalized a similar post which carries substantial eminence, but little tangible responsibility once the president is alive.

It is ironic that within the Westminster system of politics (at least within the Britain), the deputy has seldom become prime minister and within this region deputy prime ministers have generally succeeded the prime minister only when he dies and few appear to have been successful thereafter.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s current deputy provides a good case in point since he is leader of the minority party within the governing coalition and, as such, most unlikely to succeed if Cameron were to become unavailable for leadership.

Summarily it would seem that “we” interpret the Acting Prime minister and indeed the Deputy Prime Minister as an implicit signal of the future direction of the government and part of the Prime Minister’s succession plan. Hence an attractive Deputy Prime Minister, or potential Deputy, could help to boost the “stocks” of either party, especially where there is obvious public reservation about the substantive office holder.

The appointment can however also be a double-edged sword since it can create jealousy and friction among the sitting MPs. This is perhaps why Prime Minister Thompson and Thomas initially did not select a Deputy and why Eric Williams had three.

In our current dispensation, the “presumptive” deputy leader in either party is not politically attractive and therefore represents an opportunity lost in both instances.

It could be argued that this opportunity is “neither here nor there” for the Barbados Labour Party since it is already well ahead.  

Political opportunities for the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) are however few and far between in this economic situation.

One therefore wonders why there has been so little interest shown in such an appointment which requires so little effort and could make such a major difference to the DLP’s fortunes.

 

• Peter W. Wickham (peter.wickham@caribsurf.com) is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).

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