Oh no, Mr Brandford
By Ezra Alleyne
Last Sunday, veteran columnist Albert Brandford under an article captioned Fake Estimates Debate criticised the new format in which Ministers and their top technocrats sit in the Well of Parliament and answer questions from MPs on aspects of their ministerial portfolios as reflected in the Estimates.
He called it a showy piece of political farce with a clumsy reordering of the annual Estimates debate, and said that it cannot and will not afford any meaningful oversight of the proposals for spending and revenue collection contained in the Appropriation Bill.
Yet, many people who viewed the proceedings would agree that it was refreshing to have ministers and their technocrats speaking to policy and execution, respectively. Our Constitution divides the powers of the State of Barbados into Legislative, Executive and Judicial.
Cabinet ministers and the technocrats spearhead the Executive branch which is answerable to the people through Parliament, and having the technocrats backing up their ministers, with appropriate answers is a welcome advance on accountability.
But Brandford launches an outright assault on the reforms, while he ignores the perennial problem posed in small parliaments like ours in which the Executive (the Cabinet) outnumbers the remaining members of the legislature. That is part of the problem at which the reforms are aimed.
Now, what does he mean by writing that given the present configuration of the House the new Select Committee may be the right “reform” at the wrong time? I take this to mean that he agrees with the idea of the reforms but not now when there is not a party-based Opposition. But a configuration of 30-0 or 29-1 is not the cause of the problem, even if it is an extreme example of it.
You see, when Barbados received its Constitution and modelled its governance system on the Westminster system, it could not obviously transplant the large numbers in the British Parliament or Australia or Canada to these shores.
We inherited a problem in which passing the Estimates and laws are a fait accompli because in small parliaments the Cabinet often outnumbers backbenchers on both sides of the House.
But Brandford’s article further ignores the dualist role of ministers, who are parliamentary representatives as well as Executive Ministers. For example, White Hill residents in St Andrew are now more informed of the energetic drive of their MP (George Payne) to bring meaningful resolution to a problem the existence of which troubles them deeply.
The political value to the integrity of the governance system when voters who have a real stake in the Estimates debates can see their representatives paying attention to parochial problems is priceless.
In an environment where people are being turned off the political process, there is inestimable value to the public that the political process becomes more transparent.
In his final points, Brandford asserts that the reforms are a challenge to collective responsibility. Really? This bold statement assumes that ministers will vote against the Estimates, but in the absence of any disagreement with Estimates, there is no breach of collective responsibility principle.
These reforms may not be perfect but in my view they sharpen transparency and accountability and allow more light to be shed on the intestines of policy and future intended action.
Ezra Alleyne is an attorney and a former Deputy Speaker of the House of Assembly.