Will the Real Opposition Leader Please Stand Up?
After the BLP won all seats in Parliament, we were told that our Constitution is flawed. It is not that our Constitution did not anticipate all members of parliament sitting on the Government side with no Opposition. Rather, our Constitution does not allow it. Constitutionally, there must always be an Opposition in our Parliament.
To increase the protection of the public’s interests, our Constitution (section 74.1) makes it mandatory for the Governor General to appoint a Leader of the Opposition. If an opposition leader is not appointed, then the voters get to decide with another general election.
To avoid holding another general election, Mr Atherley decided to be the Opposition Leader. However, there are mandatory constitutional requirements that Mr Atherley must meet in order to qualify for that post.
Our Constitution (section 74.2) gives the Governor General strict instructions for appointing the Opposition Leader. There are only two options available to her. The first option is to appoint the person who “is best able to command the support of a majority of those members who do not support the Government”.
When the Governor General appointed Mr Atherley, he was a formal member of the BLP, who had sworn, on his sacred honour, that he would support the BLP’s policies. Moments after he was appointed, Mr Atherley confirmed that he did not oppose the BLP’s policies, but intended to ensure that the Government carried them out.
By his own admission, Mr Atherley disqualified himself from being appointed under the first option, which specifies that the post is for the leader of those “who do not support the Government”. However, even if he did not swear fealty to the BLP, Mr Atherley would still be disqualified under the first option. This is because the Constitution requires him to have “support” of other opposition parliamentarians, which he did not have.
The second option is to appoint the person who “commands the support of the largest single group of such members who are prepared to support one leader”.
Mr Atherley explained that he was only becoming Leader of the Opposition to satisfy the constitutional requirement that there be an Opposition Leader, and for no other reason. With the Bible on which he swore nearby, and with his family beside him, he promised the public of Barbados that he would not form a political party.
Mr Atherley was one individual, and not a leader of a group of parliamentarians. Therefore, this automatically disqualified him from the post under the second option, since a group is comprised of a minimum of two persons.
To force Mr Atherley’s appointment, some argued that since the Interpretation Act supports singular and plural being used interchangeably, his appointment was in order. Let us examine this assertion. The Interpretation Act (section 36.2) states: “words in the singular shall include the plural; and words in the plural shall include the singular.”
In the first option, Mr Atherley needed the support of other “members”. The Interpretation Act can only reduce this requirement to one other “member”, which Mr Atherley clearly did not have. In the second option, Mr Atherley needed the support of a “group”, which is already singular (the plural being “groups”). So the Interpretation Act cannot justify his appointment.
Since Mr Atherley is disqualified by both available constitutional options, then on what basis did the Governor General appoint him? We are told not to ask such questions. Instead, we are supposed to shut up, accept the farce, and believe the absurd idea that only in Barbados, the singular of “group” is “individual”.
If our Constitution can be broken (not bent) so easily, without any recourse, then our Constitution offers us no protection whatsoever. This establishes an extremely dangerous precedent, that is foreseen to be also abused by any other political administration. The members of the Barbados Bar Association, who believe this to be a farce, are doing our country a grave disservice with their silence.
Instead of trying to solve a non-existent constitutional crisis, the Governor General should have informed Mr Atherley that he did not qualify. To avoid another general election, Mr Atherley could have resigned from the BLP, and encouraged one other Member of Parliament to join him (the PM would likely have allowed it). Only then could he qualify for the post of Opposition Leader. Our Constitution simply does not allow him to qualify by himself, and the Governor General should have known that.
Since we cannot have a Parliament without an Opposition Leader, and since Mr Atherley’s appointment appears to seriously violate our Constitution, is Parliament, as currently constituted, rogue? If so, then we may now have a constitutional crisis.
Grenville Phillips II is a Chartered Structural Engineer and President of Solutions Barbados. He can be reached at NextParty246@gmail.com