Speaker of the House of Assembly Halson Moultrie yesterday recommended several parliamentary and constitutional amendments, including reforming the powers and role of the attorney general, whom he said has an “adulterous relationship” with the Parliament as being its sole legal advisor.
Moultrie also raised concerns over the size of Cabinet, suggesting it is much too big.
On the matter of the attorney general, he said, “I have noted with interest the tendency to think that the Cabinet through the Office of the Attorney General should be the sole legal adviser to the Parliament,” the speaker said.
“I see this as an adulterous relationship that is forbidden by the very concept of the separation of powers and tenants of Westminster.
“The attorney general is a member of and the legal advisor to the executive branch of government.
“In adherence to the doctrine of the separation of powers and the conventions of the Westminster model of government, the attorney general cannot and must not be directly involved in the affairs of the legislative and judicial branches of government.”
While indicating the need for reform, the speaker said he was not suggesting the attorney general be removed or that the office be abolished.
He noted that in addition to any legal advice offered by the Crown, as speaker he has sought to find wisdom in many counsel by speaking with numerous “eminent jurists to provide independent legal advice to the speaker and legislative branch of government”.
He said these include former Chief Justice and President of the Court of Appeal Dame Joan Sawyer; Fred Smith, QC; Maurice Glinton, QC, Trade Union Congress President Obie Ferguson; former Registrar General and Vice President of the Bahamas Industrial Tribunal Kelphene Cunningham and Bahamas Bar Association President Kahlil Parker.
Moultrie insisted that the separation of powers is critical, and no one of the three branches of government should encroach upon the other.
He said this practice is unacceptable and it is time to move beyond it.
Moultrie called on the prime minister to ensure that in making appointments to the executive there are sufficient backbenchers remaining to allow Parliament to hold the government accountable.
“With the exception of ‘The House Rules and Business Committee’, no member of the Cabinet should serve on any of the various parliamentary committees and the Cabinet should divest itself of parliamentary function – administrative or otherwise,” he said.
“This will lend itself to greater efficiency and the equality of treatment of all members of this institution.
“It will also bring about greater transparency and accountability.”
Moultrie said the best place to start if the prime minister wishes to remedy the wrongs that exist in The Bahamas’ version of the Westminster system, is the total separation of the legislative branch from the executive.
“It is common knowledge that the continuing encroachment of the executive into the Parliament has effectively rendered the legislature (Parliament) impotent in its role as a check on the executive as envisaged in Article 72 of the constitution,” he said.
“Constitutionally, the executive branch (Cabinet) has general direction and control of the government.
“It is clear that this control was never intended to be absolute.”
According to the speaker, the Cabinet should have no specific role or function in the micro management of day-to-day administrative and budgetary functions of the Parliament.
Article 72 of the constitution notes that the Cabinet shall have the “general direction and control of the government; shall be collectively responsible therefor to Parliament; and shall consist of the prime minister and no less than eight other ministers (of whom one shall be the attorney general)…”
Moultrie said for decades the executive, perhaps through a lack of understanding, has violated the spirit of that constitutional mandate.
He recommended an amendment to the constitution establishing a cap on the number of appointments of ministers to eliminate what he called supersized Cabinets, which he said The Bahamas has become accustomed to.
The speaker recommended the size of Cabinet and parliamentary secretaries should not exceed 17 or 43 percent of the elected members of Parliament.
He said as long as the status quo remains it will demonstrate a lack of commitment to the ideals of accountability and transparency.
Noting that the number of Cabinet ministers has almost tripled while there is only one more seat over the constitutional minimum of 38, Moultrie asked how can there be accountability and transparency when the number of Cabinet ministers outnumbers the backbenchers and opposition combined.
Moultrie pointed out that the House of Commons with 650 members has under 30 Cabinet ministers.
Moultrie challenged Parliament to table and pass a law establishing an independent statutory parliamentary service commission, with administrative and budgetary control for the institution.
He said while impartiality should be the fundamental mindset of every parliamentarian, the way the Westminster system has been practiced in The Bahamas by successive administrations has made it difficult for the chair to adhere to the principles of neutrality.
He said more than lip service must be paid if this country is serious about the development of the institutions of democracy.
Moultrie said over past decades, including when the late Sir Clifford Darling was speaker of the House in the 1980s, the country has witnessed “the most vile encroachment by the executive branch of government onto the territories of the legislative and judicial branches of government”.
“This encroachment and resultant breach was wrong under the Pindling administration; wrong in the Ingraham-led government; wrong during the Christie administration and if perpetuated, it will be equally wrong under this Minnis administration,” the speaker said.