Thursday, 28 February 2013 02:30
By Colin Sampson
One of the by-products of this new age of free media debate in Antigua & Barbuda has been a continuing focus on perceived deficiencies in our national constitution.
This focus has stirred up a storm of debate on various specific issues, not the least among them a perception that the office of prime minister is imbued with more discretionary power than is healthy for democracy and good governance.
The 1981 Antigua & Barbuda Constitution Order created a formal, written system of governance derived from the unwritten United Kingdom constitution. At the time, it seemed quite natural to assume that after centuries of tutelage at the feet of the Empire, Her Majesty’s grateful ex-subjects would smoothly and seamlessly adopt the ethical responses born of centuries of peculiar historical experience in a foreign land and make them their own.
It must be patently clear to interested observers that the “Westminster System” seems to work quite well – in Westminster, where it evolved and where it belongs. These same interested observers also seem to have missed a glaringly obvious truth. The truth, in this case, is that a form of governance that evolved over centuries of often bloody trial and error to serve a particular cultural environment need not necessarily translate unchanged into another culture.
Antigua & Barbuda is today living the reality of this imposed conceptual fallacy. Our new nation is experiencing the consequences of an ill-starred attempt to graft an essentially foreign governance ethic onto a root-stock that was not prepared to accept the implant. To date, the on-the-ground realities of our shared political experience on these islands have conspired to ensure that no process of natural evolution could work to develop an approach to governance that would serve the needs of the real place called Antigua & Barbuda – a place that is very far away indeed from Westminster.
Two powerful groups within Antigua & Barbuda have historically allied together to ensure that the most precious gift of British Imperial domination, the Westminster System, is maintained inviolate into perpetuity. Oddly enough to the initial glance, these two groups represent interests that should be at opposite poles of the national body politic. The old colonial establishment, and the liberationist politicians who claim to have freed an oppressed people from domination by the old colonial establishment, have become strange bedfellows.
It is easy to understand the keen interest that the old colonial establishment must have in maintaining those precious links to the glorious history of an empire that at one time bestrode the world. It is not so easy to understand the motives of liberationist leaders who, rather than pursue the further development and refinement of a new nation’s governance systems, chose instead to cling stubbornly to the structures, forms and ethics of a bygone era. Understanding becomes easier when one observes how effectively those imperial forms have been exploited to keep a deluded people in virtual subjection to their past.
The mentally competent adults who drafted the Antigua & Barbuda Constitution Order must have known what they were doing when they endowed the office of Prime minister with the power to appoint senators to the Upper House at his discretion. In a real sense, this must be an extension of the prime ministerial prerogative to appoint and “disappoint” members of “his” Cabinet.
In a practical, pragmatic sense, this prime ministerial power over appointments can serve a very useful purpose, as in this real hardball world of ours a little leverage here and there can work wonders in a tight political situation. The picture changes, however, when some of the real world differences between the UK and the Antigua & Barbuda body politic are brought into the equation.
The UK body politic differs from that of Antigua & Barbuda in that the sheer size of the UK House of Commons ensures that quite apart from hundreds of opponents on the opposition benches, a sitting prime minister must also contend with a large contingent of “backbenchers” within his or her own ruling party. Although there will certainly be a fair number of “toadies” (bootlickers) among their ranks, the backbenchers pose a threat to UK heads of government because of their tendency to stampede in one unpredictable direction or another at the drop of a hot issue. In addition, the prime minister cannot personally influence the overall makeup of the House of Lords.
This environment contrasts sharply with the situation in our Antigua & Barbuda House of Representatives, where the limited number of seats tends to produce a “backbench” of one – everybody else is in Cabinet. It gets worse: the prime minister has the power to potentially “pack” the Senate.
The ethical underpinnings of the prime ministerial power to appoint members to the Upper House at his or her discretion assumes that the prime minister is indeed a person of honour, and that all his or her appointees will be individuals possessing integrity, a sense of honour, and some modicum of independence. It is also expected that the interaction between the prime minister and his appointees will be such that the ruling party’s legislative agenda will be facilitated in a democratic manner.
Those pernicious on-the-ground political realities in Antigua & Barbuda have meant that in practice, the prime ministerial power to appoint senators at his or her discretion has been perverted away from its intended function. In the real world of politics in our young nation, the prime minister’s power to appoint means that a sizable proportion of senate seats are now viewed as pawns in the hand of the PM, to be bestowed as sweet rewards to political allies, useful niches for political protégés, or else as handy platforms from which ambitious future candidates can campaign.
Concerned observers of our national political development have begun to openly call for the Antigua & Barbuda Constitution Order to be amended to allow for the election of senators to the Upper House. The argument goes that only by some such mechanism can the Senate be saved from political abuse, and from becoming what it is now – a mere rubber stamp for a Cabinet dictatorship.
Of course, nothing can take the place of astute, alert, and proactive political leadership that is informed, articulated, and deployed through effective administrative protocols and communication systems, both internal and external. In the absence of this essential ingredient, even the best-designed system of governance must stumble, as we in Antigua & Barbuda must be at last beginning to see.
Those who tremble at the very thought of amending any of the inviolable clauses of our sacrosanct Westminster-derived constitution should bear in mind the price paid by the British for their unwritten traditions, that still bind them so securely today.