PM Gonsalves on shaky ground
By Rickey Singh
Guyana Chronicle
December 1, 2002

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THE POWERS of the Prime Minister are awesome in the political system of a small nation-state. Whether these powers are exercised capriciously or not, through authoritative conduct or authoritarian means, sensitively or not, depend not only on the extent, in practical terms, of the democratic ethos in the political culture, but also on the character, disposition, conduct and vision of the Prime Minister himself..."

The above is an extract from a presentation by the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Dr Ralph Gonsalves, on the topic: `Westminster in the Caribbean: Viability, Past and Present, Prospects for Reform or Radical Departure’.

The occasion was a Conference on Constitutional Reform in the Caribbean, held in Barbados in January this year.

I found the observation by Gonsalves relevant in view of criticisms, for different reasons, that came from the parliamentary opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Chairman of Caribbean Communications Network (CCN), Ken Gordon, and a surprising development involving the flamboyant Prime Minister.

First, the barbs of Gordon who took issue with Gonsalves for a comment on the `Carnival and fetes’ mentality of the people of Trinidad and Tobago.

In addressing a breakfast meeting of the Trinidad and Tobago Institute of Business, Gonsalves criticised the people of Trinidad and Tobago for behaving as if they think that "Carnival and fetes would solve all of the country's problems". (`Express’ of November 10).

Gordon felt that was going too far. So, in an address at the Guyana Manufacturers Association Annual Awards Dinner, he wondered "why would a Prime Minister go out of his way to gratuitously insult the people of the country to which he is invited as a guest speaker? It is as though we are consumed by a CARICOM death wish..."

While I can understand the surprise and hurt of the CCN Chairman who, like Gonsalves, has always been viewed as a strong regionalist and advocate of press freedom and freedom of expression, I have some difficulty making the link between the insensitive comment by the Vincentian Prime Minister and Gordon's assumption of a "Caricom death wish".

Gonsalves could perhaps be forgiven for his controversial remark which runs counter to his known informed views on the culture and social behaviour of the people of Trinidad and Tobago.

Questionable role
But he stands on shaky ground by involving himself as Prime Minister in a questionable role that could only have comprised the independence of the Speaker of Parliament and the conduct of business by that highest forum in any multi-party democracy.

Related to this, there are questions also about the constitutional reform process being undertaken in St. Vincent and the Grenadines with a former Attorney General and current president of that country's Bar Association, Parnel Campbell, as deputy chairman.

The problem, currently a topical political issue in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, has its genesis in a sharp verbal attack by National Security Minister Vincent Beache, on the competence and integrity of the Director of Public Prosecutions, Roger Gaspard. The DPP happens to be a national of Trinidad and Tobago.

Beache's outburst at the DPP and his subsequent blast at Campbell, head of the local Bar Association, for criticising his attack on the DPP, had followed Gaspard's decision to instruct the police to institute a murder charge against the Superintendent of Prison in connection with the shooting death of a prisoner, contrary.

The Superintendent was subsequently freed of the charge. But Beache chose to have his day in Parliament by first attacking the DPP.

At a subsequent meeting of Parliament, Beache went with a severe tongue lashing against the Bar Association and Campbell, who had accused the National Security Minister of misusing parliamentary privileges to make unjustified criticisms.

In steps Gonsalves, the flamboyant, articulate and experienced political scientist who also holds the portfolio of Minister of Legal Affairs. In an effort at damage control, Gonsalves claimed that Beache had spoken in his "individual capacity".

Surprise, surprise! Since when does a cabinet minister speak in parliament in a personal capacity and defended for doing so by a Prime Minister?

A far more disturbing development was to come from Gonsalves, the lawyer and politician, known for his liberal views and struggles in defence of the democratic process, and who had, months earlier, so eloquently pointed to the implications of too much power in the hands of a Prime Minister in a small nation-state:

Controversial meeting
Gonsalves summoned a meeting in his office on November 11 of the Speaker of Parliament, Hendrick Alexander, and Campbell after the Bar Association president announced his decision to resign from the Constitutional Commission in protest of what he regarded as a gross attack on his "integrity" by Beache.

Guess what was the result of that meeting from which a notable absentee was Beache, the man who sparked off the controversy?

Gonsalves was to emerge "satisfied" that the Speaker would authorise the "deletion" from the record of the House of the relevant "offensive" remark made by Beache against Campbell.

Further, that Campbell, who had earlier declared he has had enough of Beache's "tutorial diatribe", would withdraw his resignation as deputy head of the Constitutional Commission. Nothing was mentioned about Beache's earlier attack on DPP Gaspard.

What a pathetic scenario by people who ought to know better. Since when does a Prime Minister, one like Gonsalves conscious about the abuses of holders of that office across the region, thinks he is helping the "democratic" process and enhancing the stature of Parliament, by involving the Speaker in a highly questionable decision, outside of the regular business of the House?

Does a Speaker now have to meet with a Prime Minister, outside of a sitting of Parliament, to correct a wrong at another sitting of Parliament?

And has the precedent been set for more politically expedient "editing" or "deletions" of the records of parliament in St. Vincent and the Grenadines?

Was that not a case of abuse of Prime Ministerial power?

That meeting summoned by Gonsalves and its outcome do not reflect creditably on a political scientist of repute and a likeable and promising new Prime Minister who commendably wants constitutional changes to limit the powers of a Prime Minister, enhance human rights and better governance in the Caribbean Community.

Nor, I think, has either Campbell, a politician of experience and Queen's Counsel, or Speaker Alexander done himself any credit with that meeting in which the Prime Minister sought to change the record of Parliament.

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