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The gathering political storm
Political disgruntlement, union threats, protest actions, public exposure and revelations of contradictory statements concerning the position of the Honourable Prime Minister’s sister, Vidwatie Newton faced the People’s Partnership (PP) Government last week.
Amid the growing controversy the PP may have sought to stifle growing public dissent and public outbursts by some coalition members by calling a special and urgent Cabinet meeting last Wednesday, to ensure that its public image and confidence is not further eroded.
The PP Government may have also sought to eliminate any unfavourable impressions or uneasiness that may have been gleaned by the visit of the Canadian Governor General and his delegation to this country. The significance of the meeting seems to suggest a timely reminder to the entire Cabinet of the need for political loyalty and collective Cabinet responsibility. In essence, this special cabinet meeting inevitably rendered mute the once defiant stand of Congress of the People (COP) leader Prakash Ramadhar and may perhaps cause David Abdulah’s Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) to revisit their own position.
In light of these various developments, it would be prudent therefore to understand what the term “Collective Cabinet Responsibility (CCR)” means in light of this two-year-old coalition government.
Political loyalty and CCR
The demonstrated rationale for CCR lies in the need for government to present a united front to Parliament and the public in order to maintain confidence. As pointed out by Hillaire Barnett in his book on Constitutional and Administrative Law, fifth edition, Responsible Government, “two principal sub-rules underlie collective responsibility.
The first rule is that once an agreement is reached, all members of Cabinet are bound to speak in support of that decision. There should be no criticism or dissent from the decision in the public irrespective of whether or not the particular of Cabinet was party to the discussion.
“Equally, if a decision is reached by the Prime Minister in a Cabinet committee or the inner Cabinet when only a small handful of members are present, the decision binds all.” For an insightful analysis into this process, let us now review critically the modus operandi of the PP’s doctrine of CCR on Reshmi Ramnarine and Vidwatie Newton.
In this entire concept of CCR lies the dangerous and complex notion of the term ‘loyalty’ to the Government even when national public decisions may be termed erroneous, in terms of transparency, accountability and integrity. A refreshing example, well articulated in the media, was the deliberately masked appointment of the former SSA head, Reshmi Ramnarine.
Simply put, without the shred of individual request for confirmation of educational qualifications, reliable and trustworthy evidence, Ministers Sandy, Rambachan and Ramadhar perhaps with just a Cabinet note, initially stood in vigorous defence of Reshmi, only to be eventually publicly embarrassed and humiliated. How can Collective Cabinet Responsibility be meaningful and effective when it is subtly interwoven with allegations of misrepresentation and fraud?
Inevitably, this ill-considered and inappropriate appointment brought the leadership and the entire PP Government into conflict. Its principles of governance was a sad indictment on the entire Cabinet under the notion of collective Cabinet responsibility.
Yet to date, the Honourable PM has not seen it prudent to tell the nation why such a decision was made. Has this decision in any way altered the credibility of the PM in the public domain? What many political scribes have suggested is that the Reshmi Ramnarine Intelligence scandal appears to have unearthed the genesis of decisions made secretly or by an inner cabal, which are then perhaps foisted on the Cabinet as Collective Cabinet responsibility.
Was the specially convened meeting designed to serve as a distraction on the developing and disturbing revelations of the public monies spent on Vidwatie Newton, sister of the Honourable PM? Or was the initial information given to the public by the PM that “Ms Newton is not paid from public funds,” now coming under increasing public scrutiny?
Now that there is no official Cabinet designation for the position of “travel assistant” and the provision of services for an unregistered nurse, what are the implications for CCR? The permanent secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister should recognise that “it is improper for civil servants in the higher ranks to take part in political controversies, and there is need to maintain the appearance of political impartiality”.
More than ever before, public questions will surround not only the alleged misappropriation of public funds and misfeasance in public office but also the filing of income taxes, issues of citizenship, types of passports used, whether it was British, or the usage of a Trinidad diplomatic, official or ordinary passport in her travels with the PM?
Is this then the standard of transparent government? Are we to assume that this decision by the Honourable PM to recruit and hire her sister was accepted as CCR since May 24, 2010? If so, then even though few Cabinet members may have been involved in Newton’s hiring, the entire Cabinet must accept responsibility. What should the collective public responsibility demand in this regard? Should we accept and condone this type of behaviour in public office?
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