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Dookeran and Collective Responsibility

By Selwyn Ryan

By far the most dramatic and iconic addresses which punctuated the recent meeting of Parliament on the issue of reform of the constitution was that made by Mr Winston Dookeran in which he told all and sundry that he would not be able to support the Government’s legislation to change the system of balloting.


The Government’s proposed changes involved a two-term limit for chief executives, a right to recall MPs, fixed dates for national and local elections, and a run-off election to replace the first-past-the-post formula which we have had from time immemorial .

In an impassioned speech, which still has its echoes, Mr Dookeran advised the Prime Minister that he was philosophically committed to proportional representation (PR) and could not therefore endorse the run-off formula being proposed as an alternative to proportional representation in some form.

As he declared in an Eric Williams-style address, “I have laid down my entire political bucket; how could I now kick that bucket and the bathtub?”

Dookeran went on to explain that he believed he had commitments to the younger generation whom he was encouraging to embrace a new type of participatory and consensual politics in Trinidad and Tobago.

He also argued that the exotic run-off system did not eventually lead to the goal of PR.

The run-off system was majoritarian while PR was pluritarian and consensual.

As he told his parliamentary colleagues with deep emotion, “I have to listen to my inner voice...and will be unable to support this bill in its present form.” That for me would be to “buy cat in bag”.

He agonised as to what his options should be and seemed about to decide that he would also resign from the Cabinet. As he told Parliament, “I am also prepared to accept the implications of that vote in terms of collective responsibility.”

The rubicon seemed to have been crossed. The contents of the bucket would remain intact for use by the youngsters of tomorrow. Or so it seemed.

In an attempt to appease Mr Dookeran and the many, who like him who were cross pressured, confused, or writhing politically, the Prime Minister “withdrew the whip”.

She under trumped, leaving Mr Dookeran in a state of near nakedness. One is tempted to assert that he never got the time to show the youth, whom he had promised to instruct, a Westminster-type lesson in the morality of the “new politics”.

At the end of the day, we ended up with two senior ministers who chose not to support the Government, and to nonetheless hold on firmly to their portfolios; and another abstaining. The latter had only recently been made a minister, and had no purchase in the Cabinet. Several other ministers were also cross pressured, but opted to support the Government. They knew that even though they were allowed a ceremonial “conscience vote”, they were not really free, especially since the legitimacy of the party and the survival of the coalition were at stake.

Many Coppites were disappointed that Mr Dookeran chose not to resign from the Cabinet and lead them back to home base. The leader of the Opposition argued that Dookeran had no choice. Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj did likewise, telling him that he had no option but to walk, and that that was the only way he would demonstrate to the country that he meant what he said. “You cannot sit in a Cabinet for four years and be part and parcel of the oppression of the Government to the people and then come one day in the Parliament and make a brilliant speech, then on Thursday sit in the Cabinet with them.”

One is not certain just what Mr Dookeran would consider ‘oppression’ in this context. The battle is not yet over since the Senate and the courts are yet to weigh in on the matter. One is however curious about many things. Where does Mr Dookeran go from here? How does he fulfil his mandate to advance the fortunes of PR? What happens to his inner voice when it becomes just another headache? Where does Mrs Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan go? Will she saddle horses with the People’s Partnership after the noise subsides? Where does the COP go after it is knocked out of the two-legged race that has been prepared for him and others in his party? Will it continue being in the partnership or will they constitute a case of “dead men walking”?

The answers of course depend on whether the coalition gets another life, whether there continues to be anything resembling a coalition, and whether the classic conventions about collective responsibility apply unequivocally in all cases. Does it also apply when parties are in a coalition and the partners have to agree to disagree if the entente is to survive? It also depends on the structure of the coalition, the demographics and policy balances, as well as the raison for the association.

But there are many other kinds of coalitional arrangements which change the structure of mainstream politics. British politicians, on whose ideosyncratic practices we base our political behaviour, have been undergoing change on these issues. As one minister remarked, “The individual member of the Cabinet does not feel so intimately involved, so operationally committed to every decision of the Cabinet. In consequence, the convention, in so far as it may lead to resignation, hardly now applies in practice for any member of the Cabinet over the full range of Cabinet policy. And when resignation does happen, it is no longer a fundamental breach, and the Cabinet suffers no organic damage.”

As another British scholar put it, “resignation may indeed be part of the British constitution, but it is very much an optional convention which can be used by Prime Ministers or the protesting minister as circumstances warrant”. In making the call, the players must however be realistic. They must neither be hallucinatory nor assume that they are indispensable.
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