Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Demise of Collective Responsibility?

Growing up in church there were many catch phrases which never really made sense at the time, but which I became appreciative of as I matured.  One particular phrase, ‘a house divided against itself shall not stand’ became increasingly apparent as I joined organisations and later assumed various leadership roles. The phrase was one of the favourite lines of the older preachers, who in retrospect tried their best to keep the congregation in line and to stem the wider divide which often afflicted the church.

It would seem that the proponents of the parliamentary system which we inherited also had great respect for this biblical excerpt. The doctrine of ‘Collective Responsibility’ is one of the key pillars of the Westminster System of Government. This doctrine of cabinet government holds that all ministers are obligated to give public support to government policies. It ensures that within parliamentary democracies members of the Executive Branch of government do not break rank with the decisions made by Cabinet.

If this is done elected officials holding ministerial portfolio can be expected to be stripped of their positions and relegated to the back bench. In a way this is reminiscent of the old time Pentecostal churches. In such churches   whenever one brought public embarrassment to the pastor and the congregation, one would be sanctioned by being asked to sit at the back of the church.  

Recent political events in some Caribbean countries have gone contrary to this custom of Collective Responsibility. Some have found it appalling even at times amusing to see Cabinet ministers distancing themselves from decisions taken by the highest decision making body in Caribbean countries. Even more surprising has been the absence of any sanctions for these types of breaches as is customary under systems such as the British parliament.

This trend provokes many interesting thoughts and scenarios. In the past there has always been the feeling that representatives never fully put forward the interest of their constituents as they were forced to tow the party line. If the current trend continues there might be in fact greater direct participation by the people, if representatives speak and vote on a more independent basis.  It could very well reverse the notion of the parliamentary system being seen as an elected dictatorship, not reflective of popular sentiment. It also provides for an environment in which there is greater need for consensus building and where the position of Prime Minister is no longer seen as having almost unlimited power. Traditionally the Prime Minister can hire and fire as he pleases particularly for such outspokenness. 

On the other hand there is the likelihood of confusion. A government in which publicly expressed opinions are contradictory has the appearance of being weak and unstable. The locus of power becomes difficult to locate and there appears no real consensus in decision making. This has implications for the level of confidence reposed in the country from investors, the electorate and from the members of the Executive/Cabinet itself who may still hold fast to the doctrine of collective responsibility.

Throughout the Caribbean where there has been a departure from this norm, the leadership should signal that public expression of divergent views is allowed. Failure to do so only heightens uncertainty and makes for much unwelcomed speculation on the direction of the country and its stability. Such clarification is urgently needed as economic crises often precede political crises and signal the demise of factious regimes in small island states. 

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