While political leaders in Trinidad and Tobago recognise that it is vital to the political well-being of the twin-island republic that principles of parliamentary democracy be understood and closely followed, the current set of cabinet appointments comes disturbingly close to going outside accepted constitutional practice relating to cabinet formation.
The general principle in forming a new government in parliamentary democracies is that most members of the government be elected members of the lower house. This accords with the practice of parliamentary democracy in place in most Commonwealth countries. It is also usual for a cabinet to include membership from the unelected upper house. Governmental representation in the upper chamber allows it to be a part of holding the Government to account in that it allows the Senate the opportunity to question and to be informed about governmental decisions, practices and justifications for its actions. The accountability function of Parliament is correctly conducted through both the upper and lower chambers.
The House of Representatives, though, should carry the greater responsibility for holding the government accountable. There are several reasons for this. First, parliamentary members carry the central democratic responsibility of ensuring that the Government has acted honestly, prudently, and in keeping with the undertakings that it made to the people at a general election. This responsibility of ensuring accountability in governing is, together with enacting laws, the core of parliamentarians’ function. Holding the Government accountable for its policies and its administration is such a vital political function in parliamentary democracy that elected members themselves need to be made politically accountable for performing this function well.
This essential political accountability would be defeated if many members of the government – or even a few if they are responsible for senior ministries – were not available in the House of Representatives to answer to elected parliamentarians.
General elections represent a democratic choice as to who should govern and which political priorities should be pursued.
But this does not simply mean that the electorate chooses a party or a first minister. The electorate actually chooses specific persons — the members of the government caucus – who it thinks are fit to govern. A general election is not held to choose a “chief appointer” of members of the government, but permits the popular election of those individuals who will be available to be selected to serve as members of the government.
Upper house appointments to the government are particularly egregious when defeated candidates for election to the House of Representatives are chosen. Defeat in an election expresses, in part, a lack of political confidence in the person defeated. It will be seen as arrogant and insulting to the electorate when a Prime Minister decides that a person who has been rejected by the electorate should, nevertheless, be invited to take on the power and responsibilities of a member of the Government. In parliamentary democracies upper houses with an appointed membership, such as Trinidad and Tobago’s Senate, are designed to allow a greater degree of calm reflection on policies, as well as less partisan consideration of the legislative matters under consideration. Much of the special features of political discussion in the upper house or Senate may be lost if that chamber contains a significant cohort of members of the government who are bound by cabinet solidarity and unwavering commitment to the policies and bills that the government has chosen and introduced. This situation will also induce more intense partisan reaction to the positions that government members defend in the Senate. The excessive appointment of Senators to the cabinet undermines both the distinct political responsibilities of members of the House of Representatives and, simultaneously, it defeats the particular legislative virtue of considered debate that is provided by the Senate.
Having formed his cabinet, it is important that the PM be particularly vigilant over the power relations and configuration of power in the House in the making of public policy. Indeed, a fine balance is needed which favours the role of the elected members of Parliament to ensure that government is governing appropriately and legitimately — in accordance with the ideals of a constitutional regime based on the consent of the governed. There should be no significant element of the Government that holds unchecked or preponderant power through appointment. The challenge is to ensure that the tension between the elected and the appointed does not have a context in which to grow, become disruptive and thereby detract from the government’s effectiveness.
* Dr Radhakrishnan Persaud is a Professor at Glendon College and the School of Public Policy and Administration, York University.
His principal areas of expertise are Canadian and Amer i c an constitutional law, Parliamentary government and Public Policy and Administration.