Newly installed Opposition Leader Bishop Joseph Atherley has responded to critics who have sought to liken his decision to break ranks with the Mia Mottley-led Barbados Labour Party (BLP) and cross the floor of Parliament to the biblical story of Jesus’ betrayal by one of his former disciples – Judas Iscariot.
“When they call me Judas I think I escape lightly,” Atherley told reporters today shortly after he took the oath of office before Governor General Dame Sandra Mason.
“You know what they call Jesus? They called him a devil. So if they are only calling me Judas because they do not understand where I am coming from at this stage, I think I’m escaping lightly,” he added.
However, Atherley, who now stands alone as the only independent in the House of Assembly, but was accompanied today by his wife Esther and other family members as well as the President of the BLP’s St Michael West branch John Bancroft, made it clear that his decision to leave the Government following its emphatic victory at the polls last week in which it claimed all 30 seats at stake, did not have anything to do with the fact that he was not given a Cabinet post in the Mottley administration.
In fact, the bishop sought to make it clear that he was guided by only one ministry, that being a religious one.
He also said that sometime subsequent to the outcome of the election – “election night or election morning” – in sober reflection, he had questioned whether Barbadians truly wanted a situation in which there was no physical opposition presence in parliament, adding, “I think not.”
And though acknowledging that his decision to cross the floor may have come as a shock to some, he made it clear it was “not a reaction to any ministerial appointments made by the Right Honourable Prime Minister over the last week and the omission of myself.
“It is definitely not a reaction to that.
“I have indicated that to the Prime Minister and to some of my other parliamentary colleagues. It is definitely not a repudiation of the Barbados Labour Party platform, its policies, especially as contained in its recent manifesto . . . so I don’t repudiate those, I support those,” he stressed, while stating that his move was made in the interest of democracy.
“We had a result in the election of 30 to one party, none on the other side, representing an absence of a physical presence on the Opposition benches. I want to constitute that physical presence on the Opposition benches and to give critical support to the party in office and the Government; to applaud them when they get it right, which I believe they will often; to put pertinent and pointed questions to them when necessary, to help to keep them on their toes.
“This is not about Joseph Atherley. This is about the people of Barbados and this is about our traditions of democracy. It is about our parliamentary processes and that is why I am doing what I am doing,” he added.
Even with his switch to the Opposition side, Atherley, who was dressed today in a black suit and a bright red shirt synonymous with the BLP, made it clear he had no quarrel with the ruling party.
He also said he had seen nothing to indicate that the BLP had a quarrel with him, although he acknowledged that some of his former BLP colleagues were disappointed at this moment with him in light of his decision to quit the party.
Nonetheless, he said: “I come to this with an honest heart, I come to this moment as I have come to several moments in my life with a very serious reflection, with a sense of the leaning of God, and with a sense of purpose and destiny and sometimes somebody has to make the step, sometimes it entails being the sacrifice, but the truth of the matter is that I am not in this for any personal motivation.
“This is about the people. The people of St Michael West elected me to serve their interests. I will continue to do so manfully. I did so for ten years, practically totally out of my own pocket when I was in Opposition. I didn’t walk away like some others did. I continued to serve their interests and on this side of the Parliament, the Chamber, I will continue to speak to the interests of the people of St Michael West.
“This platform gives me an opportunity to speak a bit more broadly to the interests of the national community of Barbados, but that is where Joe Atherley is, it is not about self, it is about people and that has been my adult life.”
At the same time, Atherley, who came to Parliament on a BLP ticket and was one of the main speakers on the party’s 2018 campaign platform, acknowledged that “during the course of the campaign I wore Barbados Labour Party colours. In fact I’m still wearing Barbados Labour Party colour [red] if you observe,” he said with a chuckle, even as he assured that his heart “is in the right place”.
“It is with the people of Barbados. It is with the people of St Michael West and that is where my energies will be devoted.”
Asked if others within the BLP were likely to follow suit, the new Opposition Leader said he was not aware of such and was not involved in any such discussions.
He also made it clear that he was neither forming a new political party at this stage, nor looking to join the recently ousted Democratic Labour Party.
“The people of Barbados just rejected, wholesale, the 30 representatives of the Democratic Labour Party. I am not joining them,” said Atherley, who promised to name two Opposition Senators soon.
In response to rumours that his decision to cross the floor was orchestrated by former Prime Minister Owen Arthur, Atherley said: “Don’t even raise that . . . It is nonsense. It is a nonsense. It is insulting to me. I think it is really insulting to the former Prime Minister who held office here for 14 years and did a fantastic job. It is a nonsense. I have not spoken to Owen Arthur. I have not seen Owen Arthur. I have not heard him; I have not seen him since elections in Barbados. That is a nonsense. I do not know where it is coming from. I dismiss it outright.”
As for personal fallout as a man of the cloth, the bishop said: “I am very clear with respect to my calling as a bishop. I always operate out of a sense of calling. I don’t do anything, especially anything major, unless I believe the Lord is in it. If the Lord opens doors, I will step through it.
“You know, one person said to me, ‘Joe, I know you very well and I know that you will follow God to hell if that is where he leads you’ . . . I am pretty clear to my sense of calling and my primary call in life is to ministry. . . All I’m doing is trying to follow my heart in terms of where I think the practice of democracy in Barbados ought to be going.
“I’ve heard from many of them. Obviously some of them are disappointed but the majority of them are behind me because they know that I don’t do things like this as a matter of self-interest or willy-nilly. They have gotten to know Joseph Atherley and they know that he is about service and I will do the best I can for them from wherever I am. It happens to be here at the moment.”