I have commented a few times now on the shortage (the near-absence, indeed) of policy positions from the People’s National Movement (PNM). An unceasing assault on the Government, yes, and on individuals in it, but nothing—or nothing worthwhile—on its plans for the country. An opposition party must of course oppose, but as the possible government-in-waiting, it must also lay out its alternative vision for the people’s consideration.
Earlier this month, the PNM published what it called “ten points towards constitutional and legislative reform”. It’s a step in the right direction, but we still need to know the party’s views on education, health, agriculture, etc. Putting all that in a manifesto a month or so before the general election isn’t good enough. All the same, ten is better than nought these days, so I can make some preliminary remarks.
Point one says “(a)ll parliamentarians should be full-time”. My recollection is that just recently, in the debate on the navel-gazing pensions bills, the Opposition argued MPs were already full-time, and thus entitled to considerably enhanced benefits which were, it was charged, being denied them by a wicked Salaries Review Commission. Now we are told everyone in Parliament “should be” full-time. Which is it, “should be” or “is”? Is it that some are and some aren’t? How will this “full-time” activity be monitored? Or are we, members of a trusting public, to take the word of the politician as gospel? And does “all parliamentarians” include senators? If so, why? If not, why?
Point two calls for an “in depth examination... of all committees specified in the Constitution” with a view to “increas(ing their) powers...”. New standing orders of the House of Representatives came into effect with the current session of Parliament. They make provision for seven Joint Select Committees additional to the three categories that already exist in the Constitution (Public Accounts, Public Accounts [Enterprises] and Departmental under Section 66A).
It strikes me that the enhanced powers proposed by the PNM are subsumed in the powers conferred on these House committees, old and new—that, at least, is my reading of the report of the Standing Orders Committee which the House approved, I believe unanimously, some months ago.
Point two also says “Parliament must be empowered to oversee the Government and the Cabinet”. I’m not sure what this means. Section 75(1) of the Constitution obliges the Cabinet to be “collectively responsible” to Parliament for “the general direction and control” of the government. What further powers of oversight would Parliament need? And would such powers apply to the Opposition as well? If not, why?
Point three calls for a Cabinet of fixed size “to prevent a Prime Minister from creating ministries on a whim”. I think we all understand what the PNM means by that statement; even I have sometimes been stunned these last few years. But while the PNM intention is good, it may not be implementable—after all, none of us can say for sure what future national developments there might be and what they might necessitate.
For instance, Watson Duke’s ongoing OSH campaign reminds me we used to have a Ministry of Government Construction and Maintenance—even then, decades ago, Eric Williams was distressed by the inadequate physical condition of government buildings and offices. The ministry was subsequently discarded by the very Williams; perhaps we should have kept it.
Also, in point ten the PNM says it “has stated that the Ministry of Local Government should be abolished...”. On what basis has the party decided that? Has it made a comprehensive study of present and past government activity, and possible constitutional and other changes (it cannot foretell the future)? Has it discussed this with the population? If not, how has it come to the conclusion one ministry should be done away with—not “on a whim”, I hope—while it simultaneously proposes a fixed Cabinet size and, in point four (which I shall discuss in my next article), a specified number and specified names of ministries?
• Michael Harris returns next week.