There is a longstanding convention in parliamentary democracies around the world where any time a Government minister finds himself consistently at odds with colleagues on fundamental policy issues, he does what is expected of him; that is, he tenders his resignation from the Cabinet and returns to the backbench where he can exercise greater freedom to speak his mind.
We saw an example of this convention at work in the United Kingdom back in 2003 during the Labour administration of Tony Blair. The late Robin Cook, at the time Leader of Government Business in the House of Commons, resigned from the Cabinet because of fundamental disagreement with the government’s decision to join the United States in invading Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein without securing multilateral support.
“In principle I believe it is wrong to embark on military action without broad international support. In practice I believe it is against Britain’s interests to create a precedent for unilateral military action,” Cook, who had previously served in the Blair Cabinet as foreign secretary, said in his letter of resignation.
There are many other examples from what can be described as mature democracies that can also be cited in support of the point.
Here in Barbados, under the incumbent Freundel Stuart administration, Minister of Agriculture Dr David Estwick has consistently come out against key aspects of Government’s economic strategy in recent years, especially in relation to tackling the major problem of the public debt which has placed the Government’s finances under tremendous pressure.
Two years ago, as the economy was under immense strain also because of the huge fiscal deficit, Dr Estwick put forward a proposal under which Barbados would have cleared its public debt in one swoop using a US$5 billion loan from the United Arab Emirates. The proposal was not accepted by Cabinet. However, as much as he may have been disappointed, Dr Estwick not only chose to remain in Cabinet but also subsequently gave full support to the Government’s economic policy by voting for the passage of both the Estimates and Budgetary Proposals.
However, as the lead story in our edition of yesterday clearly shows, Dr Estwick is still peeved over the rejection of his proposal and remains sharply at odds with Government over economic policy. This time, he is registering strong objection to prescriptions submitted by two committees of the Social Partnership at Stuart’ request. These prescriptions are currently being considered amid preparation of the 2017-18 Budget to be presented next month.
“They [Government] are free to choose whatever they want to do. Time is the best evaluator of reason. They have to find a way to attempt to discredit me, but I know that we cannot get out of these economic challenges without restructuring and the financing of the national debt,” the St Philip West Member of Parliament told Barbados TODAY.
“Let them proceed. Time is the best revealer of who was right and wrong.
I proposed domestic debt restructuring, foreign debt restructuring, a combination of the two as well as the entire debt via the sinking fund strategy . . . . They are on their own,. I have nothing more to say on the matter.”
If Dr Estwick feels so strongly on the issue, especially since he said he has been burnt enough by his own Government, he owes an explanation to the people of Barbados, but moreso his constituents, as to why he still considers it necessary to remain in Cabinet where he is fully bound by decisions, whether he likes them or not, through the principle of collective responsibility. Dr Estwick surely ought to be aware that his credibility increasingly is on the line.
The episode with Dr Estwick, however, goes much deeper as it also shows weakness on the part of the Prime Minister himself. When a minister has irreconcilable policy differences with Cabinet and chooses not to resign, the Prime Minister can assert his authority by relieving the particular minister of his portfolio. It seems, however, that the overriding objective of this administration is its political survival before all else.