Friday, February 23, 2018

Cabinets in the kitchen?


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Basdeo Panday argued recently that Cabinet meetings should not be held at the Prime Minister's private residence. According to Panday, "no Prime Minister has convened Cabinet meetings at their private residence. There is a Cabinet Room at the office of the Prime Minster for meetings."

I however agree with Panday that Cabinet meetings are important occasions in the process of Government and should not be held in just any space and that they should be held at a time which is appropriate for the purpose. I assume that Panday is not talking about ad hoc meetings that are held off base if the Prime Minister is ill, indisposed, or has to hold a spontaneous meeting to deal with an urgent problem. I also assume him to be saying that Cabinet meetings should not be scheduled in a smoke-filled room in the Prime Minister's residence. Panday's complaint suggests that such meetings occur frequent enough to raise concern. The British have long since discontinued the practice of holding meetings of the king or the queen at the Court of St James.

I am however aware that meetings of the "boys' are held in certain favourite watering holes, and than much that is important is decided upon in these enclaves and merely "ratified" in Cabinet. Much horse trading takes place in these settings. They may be more important that the formal cabinet. It is also rumoured that many a deal is made there to blush unseen.

These things however happen everywhere. There are formal environments and informal environments (cabals, kitchen cabinets, etc), and some members of the formal group are "in" and some are not. We know all too well that important private sector decisions are made during rounds of golf, in sauna baths, or over a pint, or a bottle of scotch or beer. In African countries, the drink of choice in the dens of deal making is beer. Nothing moves until several litres are consumed

In the old patriarchal days,the meetings consisted of men only. Now, women are trying to get into the loop. Problems may arise if they are excluded or are not comfortable with the language, the fare that is served up, and the marital status of some members of the group. It would be an interesting sociological exercise to find out how our political females manage in these environments. Are they treated as one of the boys?

One assumes that many tobacco- filled meetings were held by Dr Eric Williams' in his home bar and that important deals were often concluded in this and other private spaces. I would assume that every Trinidad PM, except possibly ANR Robinson, would have held them when required. One assumes that Kamla does the same and holds her own with the men. I would however agree with Panday that cabinet meetings should not routinely be held in a private residence if that is what is bothering him.

Panday went on to raise hoary questions about ministerial and collective responsibility. He took the position that ministers in our Westminster system must know how to behave in public and what they should or should not say openly on sundry matters. "They can only talk on matters relating to their own ministries but cannot go to the public and say what he or she is going to do until he goes to cabinet and gets funding".

Panday complains that Cabinet notes are being "leaked" and takes that as evidence that some ministers are unhappy with how the country is being governed. "Somebody who is not satisfied with the government is leaking". Leaking is a standard way to indicate disapproval with policy. It is also a way to prevent certain things from happening or to force the government to act in certain ways. Its use can be pre-emptive or done post facto. Having lost out on a matter in Cabinet, one might use a well-timed leak to try and force a revision of that decision, defeat it or block it altogether. Presumably, there were many "leaks" during the process of enacting Section 34.

Panday has also accused the members of the Cabinet of not knowing how to behave. He has accused the PM herself of not knowing how to behave, when to speak, and what to say in public. He likewise accuses her of making too many missteps, more than any other previous prime minister. Panday of course has his axes to grind.

Panday's guns were not focussed only on the Prime Minister, but also on his nemesis, Jack Warner, whom he accuses of behaving as if he were the Prime Minister on matters that have not been vetted by his Cabinet colleagues. This irritates him. As he complains, "the government has no plan and operates in a vikey vike manner. The Prime Minister does not make any fundamental statements. [Jack speaks ex cathedra] on all issues. The PM has to get rid of the monkey on her back." This complaint is shared; some ministers do not fancy's Jack's assumption of the role of "superminister".

There are however ministers who go out of their way to insist that the PM takes advice, reflects carefully, and acts consensually and firmly whenever she has to, and is not above admitting to mistakes and missteps when she believes she must. She is neither a maximum leader or a cipher.

There is always curiosity, gossip and speculation about what a leader does, when, and how it is done, is always a subject of court and cocktail party gossip. Not surprisingly, there is even more curiosity if the leader is a woman, and one who is "of interest." Kamla attracts more than her share of gossip, political criticism and commendation, but she seems none the worse for it. She clearly attracts Mr Panday's attention.

It is easy to show how many things Panday did which he now accuses Kamla and her ministers of doing. He was the enfant terrible of the NAR in 1986-97, and he and the ministers who supported him "leaked" more than the current group does, whenever they wanted to influence policy or process.

The then Prime Minister, ANR Robinson, was as perplexed then as Panday is now by the extent to which the ship of state was leaking. As Robinson complained in reference to Panday's behaviour, "some people get sick and do all sorts of strange things, including throwing up on their colleagues".

Panday in fact often argued that it was good to leak. "Leaking", he said, "was a way to bring the people and other MP's into the game." He felt then that the closed secretive Westminster model was not appropriate for societies such as Trinidad and Tobago. To quote him further, "we speak of open government. Yet we insist that troublesome issues must be discussed only behind closed doors. Any attempt is labelled as boat rocking and a devious strategy of destabilisation."

There is much in the history of the NAR that is being reproduced in the PP which could lead to the latter's premature collapse. The country is however not ready for fresh elections. But from what we saw earlier last week in terms of the mini parties, it would almost seem that "History" is trying desperately to repeat itself.