ALL AH WE IS ONE: Cabinet Government?
“Stuart explained that . . . he was not in a position to say ‘there will be layoffs or that there will not be layoffs, because the Cabinet has not taken any decisions on that issue. We still practise Cabinet Government. Cabinet has to take those decisions’.” – Barbados Today, December 5, 2013.
Whenever a husband feels compelled to announce “I am the head of the household”, this is proof of a decisive shift in the expected power relations – expected at least on his part, thus explaining his need to re-assert verbally the desired status quo.
Similarly, when the Prime Minister of Barbados Freundel Stuart was pushed to declare “we still practise Cabinet Government”, following yet another maverick policy declaration by one of his ministers, it had become clear that he had been pushed into the role of instructor to a junior colleague of the mechanics of Westminster government.
On this occasion, that junior colleague was the Minister of Commerce Donville Inniss who, in an over-zealous articulation of high-school textbook neo-liberalism expressed his wish, in largely personal tones, to see a reduced public sector in Barbados:
“I personally think, and this is me Donville Inniss as an individual, would like to see a more private sector-led economy. I think the Government needs to pull out of certain areas, provide a regulatory environment, provide necessary goods and services like education and health care, and provide the best environment for the private sector to thrive.”
Wow, so much for original thought.
It is the overly personal nature of the intervention, which has negated any notion that the minister’s expression is an indication of a power struggle within the Cabinet, as was indeed raised by some journalists in the past week. However, to see those now-too-frequent “in my opinion” policy declarations as evidence of a power struggle, is to go too far in finding political meaning in actions best explained as political inexperience, and to grossly under-estimate what a power struggle entails.
In the absence of any real evidence of political infighting aimed at effecting a change of leadership, these individual expressions of policy preference, for their own sake, are suggestive of a weak centre coupled with a lack of understanding of the role of Cabinet ministers. Indeed, in a proper functioning Cabinet there are no “personal opinions” especially when sensitive areas of government policy are concerned. Not only can this be confusing to the public relying on clear knowledge of official policy for guidance, but also in strict terms, a personal deviation from Cabinet policy is sufficient ground for resignation.
Given the delicate balance in the Parliament, the centre needs to assert itself. Since it is likely that the continued expression of personal statements persists, it might be perhaps useful to reintroduce post-Cabinet briefings to both re-assert the centre and to reduce public confusion.
• Tennyson Joseph is a political scientist at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus, specializing in regional affairs.