I entirely agree that the Cabinet reshuffle announced last week is not likely to produce better or cleaner Government.
Our governance structures and processes are out of date, unreformed, tainted with partisanship and in some cases riddled with corruption. They lack public trust. By analogy to Chalkie’s “The Driver Can’t Drive”, we are in a situation where the State vehicle cannot be properly driven because it is defective.
Many of these columns pointed out the decade of wilful blindness of the Patrick Manning-led PNM administration to violent crime, ceding the field to so-called ‘community leaders’. I have also described the pernicious undercurrent continuously drowning any serious approach to violent crime.
Put simply, if persons in authority are sleeping with the financier dogs of the drug trade and state enterprise corruption, we will have our blood sucked by the ticks on those dogs.
This week it might be useful to comment briefly on the current state of some principal governance institutions through the medium of which productive results ought to be obtained across the board. If the state of those institutions—including the level of public trust—has been compromised, the capacity for positive results also becomes compromised.
Starting at the top with the Office of the President, we now have the unprecedented situation of several serious challenges to the functioning, expenses and credibility of that office. Some of the wounds are self-inflicted because of attempts at activism beyond the constitutional boundaries of the Office.
Essentially the Office of the President requires a quiet exercise of the gravitas, that is the dignity and respect of the Office, in order to draw the Prime Minister’s attention to consider things that may not be apparent within the heated partisan political atmosphere in which a Prime Minister and his Ministers operate out of party political necessity.
There are of course, significant decisions that the Office of the President can take on its own or after specified consultation. It must be clearly understood however, that this area of Presidential decision-making is limited to making significant appointments to significant governance institutions.
Although this area of decision-making is of limited scope, its significance cannot be underestimated. Those whom the President appoints should provide checks and balances against unbridled executive power by having the bodies to which they are appointed run fairly and efficiently within their constitutional or statutory remit.
Parliament is a mess. Hardly anyone will dispute this. Parliament has degenerated into an unseemly weekly gathering of persons hell-bent on branding each other nasty and corrupt. There is no bi-partisan co-operation towards reform of those governance institutions, which can only be reformed by appropriate special majority legislation.
The appointment of a Commissioner of Police, currently hamstrung, is an outstanding example of the inability of the Members of Parliament to get together to revisit and revise the unworkable law relating to this appointment.
Likewise, if further action is needed on the Service Commissions beyond the delegation of powers that has already occurred, bi-partisan supported legislation will be required.
Sadly, the non-partisan influence of the Independent Senators appears to have been compromised by a decision that those Senators must interact with the Government and the Opposition exclusively through the so called administrative leader of that bench, a term that is merely a convenient label with no legal underpinning.
This is an entirely wrong approach because there is no such thing as “an administrative leader” beyond the fact that the Independent Senator, who occupies the first in the line of those seats, for practical reasons, is consulted. That is the person that the Leader of Government business would consult about the arrangement of Senate business and to whom the Speaker might refer to receive some indication of the order in which the Independent Speakers might wish to speak in a long debate, such as the budget debate.
The ascriptions of any other functions to the administrative leader is unhelpful and a fetter on the individual exercise of conscience of each Independent Senator.
Even more sadly, the office of Chief Justice has declined in public estimation because of obduracy in the face of legitimate questions about overseas travel, a decline assisted by questions about travel expenses of the Office of the President. Travel expenses and absence overseas do not attract tolerance at a time when the criminal justice system is the subject of almost universal criticism.
The Integrity Commission has been a lightning rod for trouble, partly because of controversial appointments to it made by two successive Presidents.
The bottom line of institutional malfunction is this: in the absence of institutional reform, shuffling the electoral pack from PNM to UNC and back to PNM cannot work for us. Consequentially Cabinet reshuffles of Minsters also will not accomplish much.
With acknowledgement to the witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Double, double toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”
Shuffle, re-shuffle, we still in trouble.