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PURELY POLITICAL: The Estwick saga

Albert Brandford

PURELY POLITICAL: The Estwick saga

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Having cautioned the party against being distracted by the Estwick saga during this time, Arthur told the gathering that no one in the BLP could serve with him if they were doing what Estwick was currently doing.   – DAILY NATION, March 24.
FORMER PRIME MINISTER Owen Arthur was not reported as saying precisely what would have been the fate of anyone serving with him who was “behaving” like Minister of Agriculture Dr David Estwick.
But Barbadians know that the political landscape is littered with some in the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) who “crossed” Arthur.
Still, it is my understanding that the “political crime” with which Estwick is being charged is that he did breach the centuries -old convention of collective cabinet responsibility, to wit, being a member of the Cabinet of Barbados, he did wilfully, and with great forethought, propose an alternative set of policy measures to take Barbados out of the current fiscal and economic difficulties in contradistinction to Government’s.

Not only were aspects of the plan in the Press, but we were told that Prime Minister Freundel Stuart took what was possibly an unprecedented, and probably precedent-setting, decision to set aside time at a regular Cabinet meeting for Estwick to make a PowerPoint presentation.
It is clear that with publication of the proposals and his public appearances touting their superiority, Estwick would have breached the convention, and in a well run Westminster-style democracy would have had to face the consequences of either resignation or dismissal.
This convention and its applicability is well known in Britain and throughout the Commonwealth where the former colonials practice a form of parliamentary democracy and have a cabinet that closely resembles that of the so-called Mother Country.
By the way, I note, but do not share, the view of colleague Caswell Franklyn in the SUNDAY SUN (3/23/2014) that our system is a “parody of Westminster’s” although I accept that we may have fallen short sometimes.
But I still think that we are at the very least committed to the “best practices” where possible. And I want to emphasise “where possible”.
The late British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, in his seminal work The Governance Of Britain (1976) noted that the collective responsibility of the cabinet for every decision was firmly laid down long before the cabinet, with its responsibility to parliament, developed in its present form. Wilson described how William Pitt the Younger in 1792 dismissed his Lord Chancellor for publicly dissociating himself from Pitt’s creation of the Sinking Fund, “the earliest known assertion of the principle of collective cabinet responsibility”.
“From that time the doctrine has never been seriously challenged,” Wilson wrote. “Lord Salisbury in 1878 set it out in what has been regarded as the classic formulation:
‘Now my Lords, am I not defending a great Constitutional principle, when I say that, for all that passes in a Cabinet, each Member of it who does not resign is absolutely and irretrievably responsible, and that he has no right afterwards to say he agreed in one case to a compromise, while in another he was persuaded by one of his colleagues. . .  .
“It is, I maintain, only on the principle that absolute responsibility is undertaken by every member of a Cabinet, who, after a decision is arrived at, remains a member of it, that the joint responsibility of Ministers to Parliament can be upheld, and one of the most essential conditions of Parliamentary responsibility established’.”
In the extant Estwick case, I was a little surprised that some who ought to have been aware of his fierce loyalty to the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) were wondering whether they were, in the words of another colleague, “justified in considering or anticipating” that he would have voted with the Opposition on the 2014 Appropriation Bill in the House of Assembly not only leading to the collapse of the Government but also to disadvantaging thousands of public workers waiting for salaries.
But you are right, Peter, that this present “state of affairs, which is an unprecedented mix of poor leadership presiding over a weak Government with a monumental task ahead of it, is not in our best interests”.
When have politicians ever put the best interests of the nation ahead of their own self-interest?
With a pencil-thin majority in the House, Estwick or any minister can feel free to breach the convention with impunity since it is just not “possible” for Stuart to take the obvious but drastic step of dismissal.
Geoffrey Marshall, in The British Constitution (1989), identified three strands within the convention: the confidence, unanimity and confidentiality principles.
“From these broad principles,” Marshall wrote, “can be suggested a number of practical applications of the doctrine, with varying degrees of constitutional certainty within our political and governmental system.
“A minister must not vote against government policy: this is perhaps the most fundamental point of the doctrine as, ultimately, voting strength in the House of Commons is not only the measure of confidence in and strength of a government, but is the test of its very right to exist. A vote is a clear public expression of a minister’s support for the government (whatever that minister’s personal opinion, expressed or otherwise).”
The Opposition understandably has been playing up the Estwick saga for all that it is worth.
This, after all, is politics and very much the manifestation of the doctrine that he who is against my enemy must be with me.