Cabinet system endangered
It is reasonable that Barbadian society should at this time be preoccupied with employee lay-offs, loss of income, business closures, dwindling investment and threats to social services and the current parity of the nation’s dollar, as some of the obviously most palpable consequences of Barbados’ continuing economic woes.
But this should not mean that major rational concern about these practical issues of everyday living should wittingly or unwittingly be allowed to breed public indifference to the slippage that has clearly been taking place in the integrity of what is intended to be one of our foremost public institutions, the Cabinet system.
And there are some who would argue that while we have been busily debating the consistent downgrading of our economy and warnings of a currency devaluation by external agencies, we have not at the same time been fully appreciative of the internal institutional downgrading and devaluation that have already been wrought by our own hands on the Civil Service, Police Force, Parliament and the Central Bank, and the likely negative effects on the quality of future governance.
Ironically, the serious nature of the damage to Cabinet has been exposed during the 60th anniversary of the coming into being in 1954 of this system of government, as symbolised by Minister of Agriculture Dr David Estwick’s acknowledgement that Prime Minister Freundel Stuart had “acceded to give me an opportunity to present to the Cabinet an alternative set of economic policies and strategies for moving Barbados from recession to stability and growth . . . .”
But while much attention has naturally been paid to the content of Estwick’s presentation, equal focus needs to be directed at its form and accompanying procedure, and the implications for the principles and practices of Cabinet government as Barbadians had come to know them over the last six decades.
For it must be understood that the very creation of the Cabinet is mandated by the Constitution of Barbados and is therefore not left to the whims of the Prime Minister who can only decide on its composition, size and duration.
Without maybe even fully grasping the constitutional nuances and niceties of the Estwick development, the public at large looking on from the outside have instinctively considered the whole scenario bizarre.
Shocked and horrified is the way I would have to describe my reaction, based on the insider knowledge and experience I would have accumulated from having served for nearly nine years as Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office and Ministry of the Civil Service, as a member of the Cabinet of Prime Minister Owen Arthur.
And while it is expected that each Prime Minister would bring his own personal tone to the leadership and management of the Cabinet, by and large all of its members with whom I served had through law, convention and tradition come to accept that there were a certain set of operational principles and practices to which we had to subscribe.
In doing so we were well aware and appreciative of the fact that we were maintaining a fine and long tradition respected by previous Barbados Labour Party (BLP) administrations, and from what I have been able to understand, in large part by preceding Cabinets by the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) as well.
Without betraying secrets I can safely say that as chairman of the Cabinet, PM Arthur routinely expected, encouraged and at times even insisted that ministers explicitly state their views on matters, especially where the most weighty issues were concerned.
It was in this context then that I became utterly flabbergasted by certain aspects of Estwick’s printed presentation which threw up questions and gave hints, if not answers, of the manner in which the Stuart Cabinet operates.
For example, Estwick speaks about no consideration for his 2009 advocacy of a public sector wage freeze and natural attrition and divestment. What is meant by “not considered”? Was his advocacy to the rest of Cabinet and was it oral or written? On what authority did he “engage” with the Middle Eastern governments not being Minister of Finance or Economic Affairs?
Based on my first-hand Cabinet experience, Estwick’s revelations may betray a seeming climate of invasion of others’ ministerial portfolios, indiscipline and negative social dynamics which I never experienced.
Having in 2014 to resort to a special written presentation to Cabinet evokes memories of the so-called Eager Eleven having in 2011 to consider a letter to Stuart for an “urgent audience” on the PM’s leadership and other matters. No lessons learnt?
• Glyne Murray is a former diplomat, Cabinet minister and journalist.