FRANKLY SPEAKING: Our system a parody of Westminster’s
IF SOMEONE HAD ASKED ME a few years ago to describe the system of governance of Barbados, I would have said that this country is a parliamentary democracy which follows the Westminster System as practised in Britain.
Now I am not so sure, today I would say that this country has developed a parody of the Westminster system. It would appear that we have all the institutions to sustain a parliamentary democracy but they don’t function as they were intended.
Two recent events have given me cause for concern: a speech made by His Honour Michael Carrington, Speaker of the House of Assembly, to a Democratic Labour Party branch meeting; and the passage of the Barbados Revenue Authority Act.
In Britain, the Speaker must be seen to be politically impartial, so much so that the Speaker-elect is required to resign from his political party and remain separate from political issues. In this country, while the holder of the office of Speaker does not resign from his political party, by tradition, he has until now stayed away from political controversy giving the outward appearance of political neutrality.
I was therefore astounded to read a report of a speech given by the Speaker, to a DLP branch meeting, castigating the Opposition Barbados Labour Party for boycotting a function to commemorate the 375th anniversary of Parliament. Truth be told, I agree with some of his sentiments, but as Speaker those opinions were not his to publicly express and certainly not at a DLP branch meeting. He should not have been there.
The Opposition was able to score a few political points by pointing out the insensitivity of putting on an expensive bash at a time when Government was placing workers on the breadline in order to reduce spending. In my opinion, the reason for the boycott was sound, but I would have preferred that they signalled their displeasure in some other way.
I am not holding myself out as an expert on the Westminster system as practised in Britain. But I fail to see, and I could be wrong, the Opposition at Westminster boycotting a state occasion where the Queen would have been in attendance. That would have been seen as drawing Her Majesty into political controversy. Similarly, the Queen’s representative in Barbados, His Excellency the Governor General, should have been accorded the same level of respect and he should not have been subjected to that episode in front of foreign guests. My view is that the Opposition owes the Governor General an apology, and the Speaker owes the country an apology as well. At this point, a good old Bajan saying comes to mind: two wrongs don’t make a right.
Now to the Barbados Revenue Authority Act.
An integral part of the Westminster System of governance is an impartial civil service that would serve whichever party that forms the Government, where politicians play no role in the recruitment and promotion of civil servants. However, it would appear that local politicians are averse to anything they can’t control and have been moving systematically to dismantle the tried and tested civil service model. And they have been replacing it with a system of statutory boards that are more amenable to political control. The latest attempt to politicise the Public Service is the formation of the Barbados Revenue Authority.
In order to appreciate the reason for the structure of the Public Service, a short history lesson is in order. The Barbados Public Service, with its service commissions, is patterned on the British model. Prior to 1855 the Civil Service was for all intents and purposes the King’s civil service. Officers were appointed, promoted and dismissed at the King’s pleasure. Recruitment and promotion were done on the basis of patronage.
In 1854 Parliament appointed a select committee to enquire into the operation of the Civil Service. Arising out of the work of that committee, a report recommended the establishment of a civil service commission.
The first one was subsequently established as an independent and impartial body with monopoly power to recruit, promote and discipline civil servants.
That condensed version was the basis for the establishment and retrenchment of the role and functions of service commissions in the 1966 Constitution. The first assault on their power came in 1974 as a result of constitutional amendments which gave the Prime Minister and Minister with responsibility for the Civil Service power to recommend certain appointments. Ever since then politicians with a thirst for absolute power have been devising ways to eventually have ultimate control over the appointment of public employees.
The preferred method of political control, over public service appointments, is the establishment of statutory boards, where ministers appoint boards and the boards in turn appoint their employees, subject to ministerial policy. In short, the ministers get the jobs for their people. It is interesting to note that a Statutory Boards Service Commission was created by ordinary legislation in 1969. It had power over statutory boards in much the same way as the Public Service Commission has over the Public Service. Unfortunately, the act was repealed when the commission refused to act on political directives to dismiss two workers.
The power to hire and fire then became the responsibility of the individual boards that are answerable only to ministers. Is this the fate that awaits future employees of the Barbados Revenue Authority?
We are witnessing the transformation of the Public Service into a series of statutory boards and Government-owned companies, which would be controlled from behind the scene by politicians. In many cases the managers would be unqualified political operatives who would only have passed water at school.
Caswell Franklyn is a trade unionist and social commentator. Email [email protected]