In the dying days of December 2017 and the beginning of 2018, three Caribbean countries announced the appointment of new Heads of State. In two jurisdictions, namely Barbados and St Lucia, the head of state is a representative of the British monarch, whilst in Trinidad and Tobago, we have a ceremonial president. Whether president or governor general, the position is steeped in controversy. Not only because they are often seen as politically powerless individuals, representative of the continuing legacy of British colonialism, as in the case of Barbados and St Lucia, but the method of selection and the choices made are sometimes questionable.
Are heads of state in the Commonwealth Caribbean really powerless? On the surface, many would agree that their role is merely ceremonial. However, this is far from the truth. A closer look at the constitutions would reveal that the office of the head of state and therefore the individuals occupying that space are politically powerful individuals, lacking in a modicum of political accountability. While governors general for the most part exercise their powers on the advice of the cabinet of ministers or a minister, the president of Trinidad and Tobago who also acts on the advice of cabinet of ministers or a minister, under certain circumstances can act in his/her own deliberate judgement after consultation.
Though they do not possess the range of power enjoyed by the head of government, heads of state are not only responsible for a wide range of appointments to sensitive commissions but in some countries they also have the political discretion to refuse to accept a recommendation from the prime minister with respect to a dissolution of parliament.
So given the mix of powers enjoyed and the fact that they are not directly accountable to the electorate, heads of state easily lend themselves to the criticism that the enjoyment of political power without the accompanying political responsibility is a dangerous cocktail.
For sure, there is no public consultation on their appointment. The parliament is not consulted (except by way of a consultation with the leader of the opposition, and in Trinidad and Tobago the president is selected by an electoral college of parliament), and many of the powers that the ceremonial presidents exercise cannot be inquired into by any law courts. So there is a curious lack of oversight of the performance of their duties and worse still, the actions for instance of the president of Trinidad and Tobago (and the president of Guyana who is an executive head of state), cannot be inquired into by the court system.
Hamid Ghany, political scientist at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine Campus, points out that because presidents are not answerable to any court for their performance of the functions of their office or for any act done by them in the performance of those functions, the constitution places them outside the law, since it cloaks the office from inquiry.
In his view, this exclusion of judicial review of the functions of the president when combined with the absence of any meaningful political responsibility for the exercise of those functions after consultation, creates a constitutional loophole. This is one instance where power does not bear responsibility. So for instance, in relation to the various appointments of the head of state, whether in the senate or the sensitive service commissions, the state has no choice but to accept the appointees of the president after consultation. So that there is no real scrutiny of those appointees so as to enhance the accountability process.
We are aware that ceremonial presidents for instance can push the boundaries of their office. In Trinidad and Tobago in 2000, then prime minister Basdeo Panday attempted to secure the appointment of several defeated candidates to the senate and as junior ministers of government. However, then president ANR Robinson refused to accept the recommendations, leading to a political impasse for 55 days. He also refused to revoke two appointments to the senate, delayed the dissolution of parliament in 2001 and refused to reappoint Mr Panday to the office of the prime minister in 2001 following the hung parliament occasioned by the 18-18 election results.
In terms of the 2001 election results, the president opted to use his discretion in a way that invited tremendous controversy, for it was argued that the sitting prime minister ought to have been allowed to form the government having won the majority of the popular vote if not the majority of seats. Though such cases arise infrequently (partly because of the two party system and the odd number of parliamentary positions), heads of state nonetheless can be drawn into what is obviously a divisive issue. One may well argue that it is constitutionally irrelevant that a particular party has won the largest number of votes. What matters under Westminster constitutions in the Commonwealth Caribbean outside of Guyana, is the number of seats, giving a political party (or a coalition) a majority in the Lower House of Parliament. It is this which determines who should form the government, but the possibility of a dead-heat is possible in Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago and places the head of state at the centre of the decision making process in this regard.
So unquestionably, these are powerful individuals who can exercise tremendous power if they so choose. Given these powers, it is important that a great deal of thought be given to appointments to these offices. In Barbados, the appointment of Dame Sandra Mason is heralded as a critical moment for women and it is also seen as an excellent choice by Government, receiving overwhelming support from the public. The new Governor General appears to be a person of great integrity, compassion, experience and intellect. In Trinidad and Tobago, prime minister Keith Rowley’s choice of Madam Justice Paula-Mae Weekes was unreservedly supported by former prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissassar, who stated that the president-designate was deserving of the appointment.
Now to St Lucia where the reign of Dame Pearlette Louisy has come to an end. A highly respected cultural icon and educator, she was appointed by prime minister Kenny Anthony after the Labour party’s victory in the 1997 general elections. She survived a UWP stint in office from 2006-2011 and continued, always with grace and dignity, until her “retirement” in December 2017. Her replacement announced by prime minister Allen Chastanet (who came into office in 2016) is no less than Neville Cenac, former foreign minister of St Lucia under the John Compton-led UWP administration. Now what is publicly known about Neville Cenac is far from complimentary. He was the parliamentary representative for one of the safest Labour party constituencies in St Lucia and in early April 1987 easily won his constituency election for the party. However, the 1987 elections in St Lucia will forever leave a stain on the electoral history of the country and Neville Cenac is central to this.
John Compton, dissatisfied with his slim working majority of one seat, dissolved the parliament and new elections were held at the end of April (the same month) in a desperate bid to increase his parliamentary majority.
After much expense and political tension, the results of the election remained unchanged. So Compton flexed his political muscles and using his political resources to offer political appointments, lured the fickle and Labour party-hopping Neville Cenac to cross the floor, thereby betraying his party and the constituents who had supported the party platform in the Laborie constituency.
Cenac severed his relationship with labour to become a UWP minister of foreign affairs, a decision for which he has never been forgiven by Labour. Cenac retreated from politics following the 1992 elections which were won by the UWP, and this was the end of his political career and his public face. Now, in the twilight of his time on earth, in his 80s, he has been resurrected by Chastanet – an ugly stain on the office of the Governor General.
But this unfortunately is not the first time for St Lucia. After all, Labour itself made a questionable appointment in the person of Boswell Williams, a Labourite, who in the mid to late 1960s had sued the government all the way to the British Privy Council over its compulsory acquisition (under authority of Section 3 of the Land Acquisition Ordinance in 1963) of Ventine Estate and the Sulphur Springs or volcano, also known as Terre Blanche.
Having purchased the land for $27,205, Williams sued for $3,679,200 in respect of the mineral springs, and additional $250,000, alleged to be the value of 25 acres of land ripe for building development.
There was of course no end to the demand for compensation, and Williams claimed a further $100,000 for mineral and other deposits. Having been awarded the sum of $61,050 in full satisfaction of his claim against the government for compensation by the Assessment Board, Williams took his case before the West Indies Associated States Court of Appeal, which was subsequently denied, prompting a further appeal to the Privy Council. The Privy Council dismissed the appeal.
Lasting just over two years in office, Boswell Williams had previously represented the Labour Party administration as constituency representative for Vieux Fort from 1974-1979. As Governor General he replaced no other person than the distinguished Sir Allen Lewis (father to former Prime Minister Vaughan Lewis and brother to Sir Arthur Lewis), a founding father of the Labour party, member of the legislative council, senator in the federal parliament of the British West Indies, a jurist of pre-eminence having served as the first chief justice of the Supreme Court of the West Indian Associated States (now OECS), and UWI Chancellor along many other accolades. His was a history of service to St Lucia and the region. But Boswell Williams did serve as governor general under extreme circumstances that gave the office prominence between 1979 and 1982.
We also have the case of George Mallet, long time UWP member of parliament, representing the constituency of Castries who was persuaded to resign from parliament to pave the way for the entry of Vaughan Lewis in 1996. He was immediately rewarded with the position of governor general.
But generally speaking, irrespective of our position on the continuing relevance of the monarchy and thus the office of the governor general, many individuals occupying that post, have been widely respected for the role they often play in mediating tension between government and opposition, for their ceremonial function, and no doubt, especially in the case of Barbados, for their role in community life. With few exceptions, the office of the head of state has not been embroiled in scandal, and many GGs and of course presidents, as in Dominica and Trinidad and Tobago, have lent some dignity to the office. I have no doubt that this will continue, for the most part.