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Antigua senators stick for principle

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On Monday of this week, in Antigua and Barbuda, one of our sister states in the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), there was a rare occurrence in one of its Houses of Parliament that deserves the attention of all the citizens of this region. The Senate there had before it, among other matters, a Governance Provisions Bill, which had been passed by the elected Representatives the week before and which the Senate was expected to approve as well.{{more}}

However, in an unexpected show of independence and impartiality, the Senate, acting in its own right, unanimously agreed to reject the Bill and to send it back to the “Lower House” for reconsideration and amendment. Now, the Senate of Antigua and Barbuda consists of 17 members, 10 of whom are appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister. This means that even those 10, appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister had the guts to stand up for what they believed was right and to go against the wishes of the government which appointed them.

The Bill in question sought to give the Cabinet the power to transfer employees of statutory corporations, among other powers. This was contained in Clause 7 of the Bill which provoked public outcry. The Government argued, in justification of the Bill, that it was important to prevent senior employees of such corporations from being “stagnant” or “entrenched” in their jobs; to avoid such senior personnel from becoming “unresponsive” and “numb to changes” and to treat their offices as their “personal fiefdom”.

But in a very rare act of solidarity, for only the second time in Antigua’s history, government Senators joined with the Opposition to reject the Bill and to send it back to the Lower House. Government Senator Wigley George led the principled charge, arguing that the Bill gave “excessive powers to the Minister”, and jeopardized the security of employment. He also cautioned the government against “micromanagement”.

The previous instance of government senators voting against government legislation had occurred in 2013 under the previous administration of then Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer. The four government senators involved then were promptly fired and replaced. This time it is the then opposition, the Antigua Labour Party, which is in government. What has been its response to this humiliating rejection? Typical of politics and politicians in the Caribbean, current Prime Minister Gaston Browne says that he will send the Bill back to the Senate for approval and Government Senators will have no choice but to “pass it or resign”. As the old saying goes, “no better the beef, no better the barrel”.

IMPLICATIONS

This may have happened in Antigua but it could well be almost any country in the English-speaking Caribbean. In spite of all our glib talk about “Parliamentary democracy”, members of Parliament are expected to toe the line of those in their leadership, unhesitatingly. There is no room for back-benchers among elected officials, for all who succeed at the polls on the government side are given posts, making Cabinet dominant even within the governing side and hence virtually creating rule by Cabinet.

If that obtains for elected members, it is even worse for those appointed “on the advice of the Prime Minister”. PM Gaston Browne may be crude in his public pronouncement but the same expectations run right through CARICOM. That is why governments are reluctant in the small countries to go for independent senators. They want more of the boys, even if they were defeated at the polls. They can be counted on to say “Aye”, and to hell with principle or conscience.

This practice makes a mockery of independent thinking and violates freedom of conscience. It is not confined to governments alone. Opposition parties are no different in their approach to such matters, just ask Mrs Anesia Baptiste.

It is a serious matter which arose during the Constitutional review process of 2003-2009. It engaged the attention, not only of the Constitution Review Commission but also of many members of the general public and was raised time and again in public discussions. In the long run, these enlightening discourses reached nowhere and we are still at square one.

(More on this next week)

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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