EDITORIAL: Cabinet numbers and parliamentary responsibility
Most of the popular adverse comment relating to the outsized Mottley Cabinet is directed to its extravagant cost in these patently tough economic times for the nation. These strictures are unfailingly met with the assertion that the restoration of Barbados to an acceptable status, economically, socially and culturally speaking, requires many hands, hence the number of Ministers, special envoys and consultants on tap. We might observe that there is also an adage that “too many cooks are liable to spoil the broth”, but that is not the essence of our criticism of the particular circumstance.
Instead, we have always held the view that as far as Cabinet is concerned, its numerical superiority to the remainder of the Lower Chamber offends at least the spirit of the constitutional requirement mandated in section 64 of that document that Cabinet shall be collectively responsible to Parliament for the general direction and control of the government of Barbados. We reason then that if the Cabinet is collectively responsible to Parliament, the “founding fathers” could not have contemplated a situation where the Cabinet itself, by virtue of its numbers, may always control those decisions of Parliament that are determinable by a majority of those voting.
On Tuesday last week, the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal was called on to rule on this precise issue in relation to Antigua and Barbuda where Mr. George Rick James, a citizen, claimed that because all but four members of Parliament were members of the Cabinet, and therefore owed collective responsibility to that body, Cabinet thus had supremacy over Parliament rather than it being the other way around as the Constitution required, identically to ours.
His claim failed both in the court below and on appeal, though not because of its logical invalidity. Rather, according to the Court of Appeal panel, the Constitution expressly permitted the Prime Minister to determine the composition of Cabinet and the number of Cabinet members. The relevant section there is not worded identically to our section 64 (1) that provides for a Cabinet of “no fewer than five members” rather than “such number of other Ministers” as is expressed in the equivalent Antiguan instrument.
Moreover, the Court of Appeal abjured any inherent function to determine the number of members of Cabinet and, especially, to do so with a view to altering or affecting the balance between the legislative and executive branches of the government.
So far as the argument relating to the presumed intention of the founding fathers went, the Court of Appeal was of the view that these were familiar with the doctrine of collective responsibility and yet had made the existing constitutional arrangements, according primacy to the Prime Minister in the formation of the Cabinet.
Clearly, a similar reserve on the part of our apex court would put paid to our view of the situation. Of course, according to the hierarchical structure of the court system, this decision is not binding on the CCJ nor, indeed, on the local courts. Did our founding fathers really contemplate the viability of the collective responsibility of Cabinet to a Parliament that comprises a majority of Cabinet members? Is such an arrangement compatible with republican governance? The need for us citizens to have soonest sight of any proposed Republican Constitution is becoming urgent.