The Jeff Cumberbatch Column – A Semblance of Opposition
So great was the degree of disgust felt with the governance of the outgone Democratic Labour Party administration that the vox populi determined at the recent general election that it should not even be permitted to constitute Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in the next Parliament. Nor did the electorate consider that any other group of individuals should do so.
This was an eventuality never contemplated by the framers of our Constitution either expressly or at all. The effect was to create a minor constitutional crisis. History will record that for reasons that up to now remain a matter of pure conjecture, His Grace the Bishop Joseph Atherley, who had campaigned as a candidate for, and as a member of the Barbados Labour Party, decided to break ranks with the governing administration in Parliament and to have himself appointed as Leader of the Opposition.
Though perfectly constitutional in my considered view, this has proven to be a most unpopular development. Some, including Professor Emeritus of History, Pedro Welch and others, have doubted its conformity with the constitutional text, arguing that a literal interpretation of the relevant provision contemplates a plurality of members in order for a parliamentary opposition and hence its leader to be lawfully constituted. Unless the literal interpretation leads to a manifest absurdity, the argument continues, then the words of the provision should be given their natural and ordinary meaning.
While I understand and respect the force of this view, the literal meaning of a legal provision must be enabled by the accepted canons of interpretation, including the one that the plural includes the singular as provided by section 4 of the Interpretation Act, Cap 1. Otherwise, as I have pointed out before, the Constitution would have effected the unlikely and patently absurd requirement that the Prime Minister and Governor General must always be male. The canon that “he includes she” is of the same genus as that of “the plural includes the singular” and the former is not to be treated as self-evident while the latter is reduced to the level of “quirkdom”. In any event, as I have also argued, the Governor General is obligated to act in this mater on her own judgment and so long as she was satisfied in her mind that Bishop Atherley was “best able to command the support of a majority of those members who do not support the Government”, or that he commanded the “support of the largest single group of such members who are prepared to support one leader” then the matter was put beyond pale.
However, the appointment has also proven to be unpopular on both sides of the local political divide. The Chairman of the Barbados Labour Party, the political party under whose aegis the Bishop contested the parliamentary seat in the recent general election, has publicly rebuked Bishop Atherley for his conduct in “crossing the floor”, and has called on the goodly MP to declare whether he has left the party or intended to do so, accusing him of dishonourable conduct. According to one report, Mr Payne is quoted as saying, “I was hurt and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Every night during the election campaign . . . nobody articulated these policies any better than the Honourable Member for St Michael West . . . and [he comes] to this House and asks questions like: If Mia’s plan is home-grown or facilitated by the IMF; if we sent signals to the electorate of the path ahead; will the Dems be investigated for malfeasance?”
The stridency of this reproach should have served to allay the suspicions of all but the most cynical, not a few in number, that regard the Atherley defection as nothing but a plot hatched by his party to ensure the absence of a parliamentary voice for the Democratic Labour Party for the duration of the current Parliament.
Some disfavour for the appointment has also come, quite naturally, from the DLP, which perceives itself as the rightful heir to the legitimate voice of parliamentary opposition once it does not possess the reins of government.
In my opinion, the Atherley appointment, though necessitated by the Constitution, is an inadequate and unsatisfactory replacement for an organized Opposition party that is backed by competent research and technical know-how so as to be instinctive presenters of alternative policy initiatives and critical assessors of official dogma. The electorate clearly thought otherwise.
In spite of his best efforts in this regard, Bishop Atherley will always be perceived to be either overly accommodating or traitorously hypocritical in his analyses of government policy in Parliament. This is but another instance where constitutional theory does not accord with practical political reality.
One matter that has seemingly not gained popular currency but that still concerns me however is whether a House of Parliament that is inadequately constituted is competent to pass any legislation. This is in reference to the Senate that passed the recent Constitution (Amendment) Act even though it did not comprise the number of members required by the Constitution to be regarded as the Upper Chamber in section 36(1). I commented on this earlier and wondered whether I was not caviling on the ninth part of a hair, but a discussion with a senior counsel last week confirmed to my mind that much might have been effected in the name of constitutional governance in recent weeks that required deeper and more careful thought.
PS I extend sincere condolence to the family and friends of Sir Fred Gollop who passed last week. I became acquainted with Sir Fred relatively recently when he joined me as the only Barbadians serving on the Regional Judicial and Legal Services Commission [RJLSC], the body charged with the management of the Caribbean Court of Justice. I found him to be, in Chaucer’s words, “a verray parfait gentilknight” and am not at all surprised at the multiple stated descriptions of him as “dignified”, “quiet”, “genial”, “humble” and “wise”. May he rest in peace.
I extend my sincere condolences too to the relatives and friends of another reader (!) of this column, the late Professor Emeritus of Education, Earl Newton, who recently shuffled off this mortal coil. Unfailingly polite, Earl was fiercely proud of his alma mater, Combermere. I recall that he and Professor Andrew Downes took me to task in the Senior Common Room one day when I dared to compare that school unfavourably with another. Rest in peace, Sir.