By Denys Springer
There is a significant change in the operation of the Cabinet system of government under prime minister Allen Chastanet. Ideal, Cabinet is an advisory body and its role is to advise the head of state/president. In some jurisdictions, smart configurations are implored to also serve as the heads of government departments.
Regrettable, the formal structure is downgraded. And in most instances, the function of Cabinet has been reduced to ratify and/or to discard what has been extensively worked out in the informal system.
There is also the effect of the more extensive informal Cabinet system which further shift policy initiatives on certain key issues away from departments to the prime minister’s office. This becomes more detrimental when political operatives attached to the prime minister and other key ministries attempt to answer technical and non-technical on national contracts and development proposals.
The informal structure has become more significant and more centred upon the prime minister and his preference for business flows with special assistance from the apparatus of the Cabinet secretariat, permanent secretaries, and technical units of the public services.
The second consequence is the issue of the formal structure to comply and make applicable policy-decisions by a Cabinet of ministers of lesser competence and specific knowledge in a prescribed field.
Moreover, when one is believed to have competence-based on prior employment of the minister for commerce, industry, investment, enterprise development and consumer affairs, Bradley Felix – to seemingly remarked that did not have and/ or understand all the facts or read most the contractual obligation; yet supported and signed-off on the Desert Star Holding (DSH) deal. The prime minister later described the deal as the “Pearl of Caribbean” and “a loss-leader” – that witness horse arriving on a chartered airplane with police escort and left Saint Lucia months later in solemn secrecy by boat.
The above suggests two factors on how the Cabinet government of Allen Chastanet operates. On the one hand, there decisions going through the formal system under controlled mechanisms and on the other, with the speed of defunct knowledge and expertise.
The formal system is also increasingly used as a means of clarifying and endorsing matters largely pre-determined elsewhere and is used less than was previously the case as a mechanism for formulating policy and achieving consensus. What this tells us is that this prime minister ‘believes that a more deliberative and collective approach, is likely to slow things down and complicate matters.
Prime minister Chastanet operation of Cabinet is also prohibitive to bringing about innovations in policy and government. Moreover, members of this ‘prime ministerial’ group tend to disregard the formal Cabinet system – functioning in such a way to generally produce pre-determined results.
From their perspective, the tactical situation facing the Chastanet-led government is perhaps best summarized as one of radical United Workers Party (UWP) ideology versus a centre-right conservative UWP establishment. The image conjured is that of a prime ministerial group at the centre of government battling dissenting voices.
This bunker mentality helps to explain the tendency to pre-cook policy, albeit a policy is more likely to survive if it is introduced with equity and equality throughout its development stage. Additionally, the need to overcome opposition in Cabinet and amongst certain ministers meant it is tactically to avoid the general collectively of Cabinet, or indeed any forum where recalcitrant ministers were likely to be in a majority and/or were afforded enough time and information with which to un-pick a proposal.
Such circumstances of internal opposition have not applied throughout Chastanet tenure because of the manner he operates. Reportedly, at Cabinet, one is under the impression that all he asked of his ministers is to sign, seal and deliver.
When one relies substantially on the formal machinery one would find that it leads too good policy in the wider interest of the country and its people. Observation suggests that the proper solution to the problem of bringing about radical change within government would be to strengthen the leadership capacity of the Cabinet system –at the level of the prime minister and the ministers of government (legislature) and the composition of Cabinet (the executive).
To avoid an over-concentration of power at this core-executive level an essential corollary of such a reform would need reform measures to ensure that the operations of the Cabinet system that is effective, responsible and accountable to people and constitution of Saint Lucia.
The danger is such that we have neither. Therefore, a strong civil society is essential.