The Jeff Cumberbatch Column – The Parliamentary Interregnum
Interregnum: a lapse or pause in a continuous series; a period during which the normal functions of government or control are suspended –Merriam-Webster dictionary
For the most part, Barbadians appear to have accepted the constitutional interpretation advanced by the Honourable Prime Minister and others that his office possesses the exclusive jurisdiction to determine the date of the next general election, notwithstanding that the Governor General is expressly invested under section 62(1) of the Constitution with the mandate to issue the writs for a general election after every dissolution of Parliament.
As I argued at length and submitted in this space some three weeks ago under the title Whose call is it anyway?, I do not agree that this is a necessary interpretation of the relevant provision, even though it must suffice for now as an actuality until otherwise judicially determined (should it ever come to that). But I am also acutely aware that any further discussion on this matter in the public domain is highly likely to morph from one of the issue of an informed interpretation of the constitutional text into one of partisan bickering and grandstanding ; matters for which I have very little time, if any at all. In any case, to my best knowledge, the issue has not been seriously pursued further.
As a further limb to the argument, I note that both sections 61(2) and 61(5) of the Constitution make express reference to the Governor General having to act in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister although, given the construction now sought to be placed on section 62(1) and in light of the provisions of section 32, especially subsection (1), there would have been no need for these subsections to do so expressly.
Concerns have also been more recently raised in some quarters as to the constitutional legitimacy of the continued existence of Cabinet at this time, although it appears that much of the negative public discourse here is understandably directed rather at the notion that its members are being fully remunerated during this period of parliamentary interregnum than at the more arcane issue as to whether its continued existence under the current dispensation is indeed permitted by the Constitution.
The current state of affairs is, however, at least at first blush, legally consonant with the Constitutional text. According to section 63(3)-
The office of a Minister, other than the office of Prime Minister, shall become vacant-
(a) upon the appointment or re-appointment of any person to the office of Prime Minister;
(b) if his appointment to his office is revoked by the Governor-General, acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister, by instrument under the Public Seal ;
(c) if, for any reason other than a dissolution of Parliament, he ceases to be a member of the House of which he was a member at the date of his appointment as a Minister; or
(d) if he is not a member of either House at the date of the first sitting of Parliament after a dissolution of Parliament.
Clearly, this provision contemplates that the office of a Minister should survive any dissolution of Parliament, and it may be naturally reasoned that the Cabinet, comprising these very Ministers, likewise survives that event. It bears remarking, however, that the text of this provision makes no express reference to the Cabinet.
Nevertheless, the continued existence of Cabinet qua Cabinet may indeed be further presumed from the provision in section 64(1):
There shall be a Cabinet for Barbados which shall consist of the Prime Minister and not less than five other Ministers appointed in accordance with the provisions of section 65.
From this, we may assume that the continuous existence of the Cabinet is a constitutional reality (“There shall be a Cabinet for Barbados…”). At the same time however, the following subsection, s. 64 (2), stipulates that Cabinet is not to be wholly unfettered in its conduct of what is popularly referred to as “the people’s business”-
The Cabinet shall be the principal instrument of policy and shall be charged with the general direction and control of the government of Barbados and shall be collectively responsible therefor to Parliament. [Emphasis added]
Arguably, therefore, in a circumstance where Parliament has been dissolved, this constitutionally stipulated collective responsibility is incapable of realization. From this, the question next begs asking, “Did the founding fathers necessarily contemplate the existence of a period, sustained or at all, without the parliamentary oversight of an existing Cabinet? In other words, may there be an active (as opposed to a lame duck) Cabinet in the absence of a sitting Parliament under our constitutional framework?
I am forced to recognize however that notwithstanding its partisan allure, this argument resonates more in the context of constitutional theory than in practical reality. After all, given the current configuration of our Parliament where, through a combination of the size of the membership of Cabinet and of a political culture that instinctually estops a member of Parliament from voting otherwise than with his or her party, Parliament is practically controlled by the Cabinet rather than the Cabinet being collectively responsible to Parliament as the Constitution mandates.
What is politically intriguing about this entire debate however is that the official Opposition would appear to have scant moral authority to pursue this line of argument, having chosen to abdicate its role in the last Parliament, immediately before its dissolution by effluxion of time. It might, nonetheless, be partially excused on the basis that it woefully misread the likelihood of a prolonged period of parliamentary interregnum, although it must also be recognized that Mr Stuart had earlier hinted at this eventuality. It has now materialized.