The decision by Bishop Joseph Atherley to cross the floor of Parliament is not unusual, but his timing has definitely taken political scientists by surprise.
The Member of Parliament for St Michael West, who was elected on a Barbados Labour Party (BLP) ticket last week, was officially sworn in as Leader of the Opposition this morning, after he quit the BLP to become an independent parliamentarian.
Noted political scientist Dr George Belle explained that the BLP’s 30-nil victory at the poll meant that there was no opposition for the Mia Mottley Cabinet to contend with and Atherley had simply filled that void.
“The electoral process created a gap in not having the presence of the Leader of the Opposition because they had completely wiped out the other party, but he has stepped in there.
“What is unusual is that we would not have assumed is that with a 30-love victory for the Barbados Labour Party that any of their members would have done so at this time, just one week after that victory. The surprise is essentially in the timing, but at the same time the issue had to be settled now so he did not have much time to make a decision anyway.
“If he didn’t do that, [we] probably would have had to resort to some amendment within the Constitution to accommodate the presence of a leader or the role of the Leader of the Opposition, especially in relation to the selection of senators,” Belle told Barbados TODAY.
And while he did not see Atherley’s decision as having any impact on the new Government, he said it would cause some problems for the electorate in the St Michael West constituency.
It’s a view shared by lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies Dr Kristina Hinds, who described the development as an “interesting kind of dynamic”.
“I know that there are certainly suspicions about his motive, whether. . . it is for the good of the country, for the good of democracy or is it about personal gain and advancement which he says it is not, but I think this will remain in people’s minds. Certainly there are questions that he needs to answer for his constituency because there are a lot of people who would have voted for Mr Atherley because he was a Barbados Labour Party candidate and not just because he has done useful work in the constituency. So I really think there should be a level of accountability to the constituency, especially so soon after the election,” Hinds told Barbados TODAY following the bishop’s swearing in earlier today.
However, she said Atherley’s decision had not diminished the popularity of Prime Minister Mia Mottley’s Government.
“I think that the Barbados Labour Party Government is still in a very strong position. If we see otherwise over the next few weeks and months that would certainly be an indication that the party is not as unified as it presented itself to be during the electoral campaign, but, at this point in time, for me it would be pure speculation to say that that this is a sign that the BLP has severe weaknesses.
“I don’t think it is necessarily a sign of that. I think this is an individual taking a course of action that he has selected for whatever reason.
“The key people who should be concerned are the constituents, especially those who voted party rather than candidate, so who voted for the BLP rather than Joseph Atherley, and I can understand if any of them feels betrayed.
“On the other hand, personally, I feel that it is good that there is some level of Opposition. I was a little bit uncomfortable with having no Opposition whatsoever, but we have to wait and see if Atherley will actually function as an effective one person Opposition,” the UWI lecturer said, adding that the move should send a strong signal to the electorate.
“We need to come down to earth a little bit in terms of our expectations from the Barbados Labour Party and this perhaps is the first step in bringing us back down to earth from the election high that that is still kind of in the air,” she added.
Meantime, noted political scientist Peter Wickham told Barbados TODAY the boarder political implications were positive for the Prime Minister and her Cabinet as Atherley was no political heavyweight.
“I would identify Atherley as being a political lightweight and once you have the leadership of the Opposition being occupied by a political lightweight it means that there is less temptation for a political heavyweight, and there are quite a few of them in Mia Mottley’s Cabinet, to be tempted to cross the floor because the job is taken.
“If there was a move against her now, it would have to come from a group and it is always harder to organize a group than to have an individual or a sole crusade.
“I think that politically this does help to stabilize her Government in ways that people would not immediately imagine,” he explained.
In the meantime, all three analysts were in agreement that the swearing in of the independent leader of the Opposition had resolved the issue of the appointment of Opposition senators in the Upper House as it was now Atherley’s right to select those representatives.