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Constituting the new government

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Beginning on a sad note, I’ve just heard the news of the passing of masman extraordinaire, Edison “Sheggy” John, of “Bad Lads and Lasses” fame. I shall have more to say about my contemporary, friend and close relative in a subsequent column. My condolences to the bereaved.

It would have been a welcome change to move away from the hard-fought election campaign and focus on the more joyous and appropriate Christmas season, but events just won’t permit me that apparent luxury.{{more}} The swearing in of the new Government, the composition of the new Cabinet, the post-election shenanigans of the Opposition and the implications of all of these for governance in this land of ours, all demand their fair share of attention.

Following on the swearing-in of the essential posts of Prime Minister and Attorney General to fulfill constitutional and practical considerations, on Sunday last, the rest of the Cabinet was constituted and duly sworn in at a public ceremony at Layou, obviously a strategically-chosen venue for political reasons. Gone are the days in Caribbean politics when governments are ushered in at private ceremonies at Government House. In Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, now St. Vincent and the Grenadines, these affairs are now grand political events, targeted at the electorate. Even the traditional Christmas carol singing activities have become a casualty of our politics this year.

Before any comment on the new Cabinet, it was really incongruous and insulting to our nationhood, to have to endure the shame of our elected representatives having to swear allegiance to “Her Majesty, her heirs and successors”, for yet another Parliamentary term. Is that what we voted to keep in last November’s referendum? When are we ever going to have our Parliamentarians pledge allegiance to the people and Constitution of St. Vincent and the Grenadines?

In constituting the new government, the options before Prime Minister Gonsalves were somewhat limited by both the results of the elections and constitutional provisions. When one has a razor-edge majority in Parliament, each elected Parliamentarian, on both sides of the House, takes on special importance. Managing your team and massaging egos become essential elements of the job. In the case of constituents and supporters, expectations are high and add to the stress of making choices. With the level of political consciousness, and debate, being not as high as one would have wished, there is a blurring of the roles of Minister and Parliamentary representative. As experience has taught us over the years, a good constituency representative does not necessarily make a competent Minister and vice versa.

For these reasons, more than any other noble ones of political or social inclusion, governments have exercised the option to bring in non-elected persons into the Cabinet, taking advantage of the constitutional leeway for appointing Senators as Ministers. There are, however, limits in the Constitution as to how many of these non-elected persons can be so elevated, two Ministers in our case. The political configuration of the winning team is also another consideration. These factors tend to have the effect of almost tying the hands of the Prime Minister in exercising his prerogative. There is also the need to balance the range of skills available and at your disposal.

With that in mind, PM Gonsalves came up with a team not short of some surprises. The choice of former Health Minister Dr. Douglas Slater as Minister of Foreign Affairs must have caused some raised eyebrows in some quarters. Yet for the reasons spelt out above, this is quite understandable. The retirement of Sir Louis Straker and Mike Browne would have left the ULP front-line short-handed in options and, short of elevating the outstanding UN Ambassador Camillo Gonsalves, son of the Prime Minister, and risk inevitable accusations of nepotism, there was no obvious candidate. Dr. Slater may have had shortcomings as a Parliamentary representative, but he certainly has the ability to do a good job in his new capacity.

The biggest surprise was in the deployment of the very popular newcomer, Ces McKie, given the responsibility for Health and the Environment. McKie would have been the overwhelming choice nationally, for the portfolios of Youth, Sports, Culture and Community Development, for which his credentials are impeccable. There is bound to be major disappointment in these sectors that he has been not so utilized.

On the downside, the failure to add to female representation in Parliament via senatorial appointment, must be a minus, especially given the prominent role of women throughout the political campaign. In fact one could not help but notice on polling day, that women were very prominent, both as electoral officials, serving under a female Supervisor of Elections, and also as agents for both political parties. Conscious efforts have to be made to ensure greater female representation in Parliament.

There will also be some political flak over the reinstatement of Julian Francis to the Ministerial ranks. The Prime Minister obviously has unbounded confidence in the organisational skills of Mr. Francis, who has a reputation for getting things done. Yet, even in ULP ranks there may be some unease, because whatever his merits, Francis as a Minister is not a popular choice. It may be no fault of his, but one cannot ignore popular feeling on the issue. A plus though, is that he is sure to strengthen the Government’s debating performance in Parliament.

It is now left up to Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace to complete his team by naming the two senators constitutionally permitted. One expects that he too, like the PM, would veer towards persons who have contested and lost the elections. There are political reasons for such choices, often dictated by circumstances. These are understandable, but the constitutional reform public discussions had revealed popular dissatisfaction with this approach. When are we going to make an effort to change? The proposed new Constitution may have been defeated in 2009, but we cannot allow the debate on constitutional reform to die.

HAVE A BLESSED AND PEACEFUL CHRISTMAS!

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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