Governance and discipline
An interesting parallel arises when we compare the administrations of Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar to that of our Prime Minister Freundel Stuart. Both Prime Ministers, interestingly enough, appear to be setting records in their own right since Persad-Bissessar is dismissing record numbers of ministers, while Stuart is yet to dismiss or indeed even chastise a single one.
Needless to say, in all matters, political context is everything and the need to dismiss or not dismiss any minister does not in and of itself speak to the capacity or performance of a prime minister. Indeed, the mere fact that Persad-Bissessar has kept the country’s president so busy appointing new ministers could say more about deficiencies in her team than a potential weakness in Stuart’s style.
The details of Persad-Bissessar’s term are fascinating. She leads a strong coalition that could easily continue in government if her coalition partner left. In political terms, this strength means that she could technically be less concerned about internal discipline but also that she can fire ministers that run afoul of her government’s principles without worrying that any single angry minister can force her back to the polls.
As such Persad-Bissessar has now dismissed 11 ministers, while a 12th Minister Jack Warner left (presumably) on his own volition. These persons have “walked” for different reasons ranging from the removal of Senator Mary King for alleged conflict of interest in the award of a contract, to what could be termed as the inappropriate behaviour of Minister Colin Partap who refused to take a breathalyser test when stopped outside a night club by the police. The range of offences these Ministers committed is extensive and includes offences such as “non-performance” but excludes “moral turpitude”.
In Barbados we had become accustomed to the spectacle of Ministers getting the sack under the Arthur administration (1994-2008) during which time he either lost, fired, didn’t reappoint or “promoted” nine Ministers. Before Arthur, Sandiford “lost” a few in both in first and second term and it was ultimately the last three “resignations” that were the catalyst of his administration’s demise.
Although Arthur never made it to double digits, he “lost” Ministers soon after being elected in a way that is not dissimilar to Persad-Bissessar and in both instances this was clearly a strategy intended to send a signal about the type of image both administrations wanted to project.
In the case of Arthur, the Cheltenham episode appears to have been related to his decision to send a signal to senior BLP Parliamentarians regarding the “political god” they were serving.
Later, he dismissed Elizabeth Thompson who he previously characterised as “cantankerous” on account of her behaving improperly towards the Leader of the Opposition. At the time, Arthur made it clear that he was not prepared to tolerate the slightest appearance of arrogance within his cabinet.
Regardless of whether the dismissal of ministers come on account of alleged impropriety as in the case of Mary King, or to project an appearance of humility as in the case of Elizabeth Thompson, it is clear that such action is often necessary in the interest of good governance. Ministers have considerable power and are accountable only to the Prime Minister in their executive capacity. Such persons can easily make or break an administration and the Westminster system therefore presumes that the Prime Minister will hold them to the highest standards of behaviour.
In the same way that one cannot assume that Persad-Bissessar’s record is related to a particularly bad “group” we also cannot assume that Stuart’s is related to a particularly good one. In each instance the Prime Minster should have decided that actions of both sets of ministers warranted dismissal (or not). In reality, however, we understand that Persad-Bissessar’s actions have more to do with political realities and her personality that mandated action in the same way that Stuart’s lack of action is a combination of similar factors.
It is difficult to see how Stuart has avoided acting against any minister over the past five years. He has presided over obvious underperformance, covert and overt challenges to his leadership and obvious breaches of Cabinet conventions.
In the current context, Stuart is perhaps as constrained as Stephenson King [of St Lucia] was in his final days. However, one must recall that Stuart had a clear majority during the “eager 11” crisis and did nothing to discipline his objectors then either.
Stuart’s atypically casual attitude towards governance can be viewed in one of two ways. It can be seen as either good politics that has preserved the life of his DLP administration, or an unfortunate state of affairs if we think that a minister should not be able to tell the Leader of the Opposition to “strip naked” and keep his job. Certainly there has been a carnival of political blunders that have all been met by inaction on the part of this Prime Minister that conveys a clear statement that the actors should carry on smartly with actions that might offend good governance or political decency.
Clearly the DLP is winning the political battles here, but the question is whether or not the people of this country are losing a far more important political war.
Peter W. Wickham ([email protected]) is a political consultant and director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).