Limiting the size of Cabinet

Last month, House Speaker Halson Moultrie addressed what he viewed as encumbrances to checks and balances in a democracy created by the executive branch holding a disproportionate number of seats in the House of Assembly.

At a special sitting of Parliament, he said, “When we started to get the huge, supersized Cabinets that we refer to in The Bahamas as the ‘Gussie Mae Cabinets’, that process actually diminished the function of the Parliament itself, because what that did is it permitted the executive branch to have sufficient numbers in Cabinet where when the executive branch enters the Parliament, they have sufficient numbers to outvote the backbench and the official opposition combined.

“That is not a good situation to have any democracy in,” he asserted.

His position is valid and with precedent. Statutory limits on the size of Cabinet exist in England (coined the “Mother of Parliaments”), and a constitutional limit is set in India. Legislative reform in this regard has also been pursued in Israel’s unicameral legislature.

In our system, the executive is accountable to the Parliament, but when executive members make up an incommensurate bloc of the House of Assembly, most parliamentarians would be required to vote along with the government on all matters, making the outcome of proposed legislation potentially a foregone conclusion.

When you take into account the number of remaining MPs appointed to government boards and departments, Parliament’s job of holding the executive accountable becomes even more problematic as these MPs would likely feel beholden to the prime minister for their job.

MPs in this administration witnessed three of their non-executive parliamentary colleagues fired from their posts for voting against the government’s increase in value-added tax to 12 percent. Certainly, an MP wishing to keep his or her government job would read that as a message to stay in line.

In its August 2017 briefing paper, the UK House of Commons Library addressed this matter, highlighting that The House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 provides that not more than 95 holders of ministerial offices may sit and vote in the House of Commons at any one time.

There are 650 seats in the UK House of Commons, which would put the statutory limitation at a maximum of 15 percent of the sitting body holding a Cabinet post.

In 2010, the Public Administration Committee of the British Parliament called for the number of Cabinet ministers at that time (which stood at almost 120) to be cut by a third, calling the “ever-upward trend in the size of government” hard to objectively justify.

In response to its own ever-increasing size of government, India imposed a constitutional limit of 15 percent of the House being Cabinet ministers under a campaign banner of “minimum government, maximum governance”.

And in Israel, an attempt at moving toward limits on the size of the Cabinet came in 2014 when the 19th Knesset brought an amendment limiting the total number of government ministers, not including the prime minister, to 18 — a 15 percent ratio in the 120-seat legislature.

The Bahamas currently has 18 Cabinet ministers and five parliamentary secretaries who together make up the executive branch. This puts the proportion of House seats occupied by the executive in an administration with a supermajority at 59 percent. Add to that the MPs with government appointments and, as the speaker posited, a virtual “rubber stamp” dynamic exists in the Bahamian Parliament.

In the words of 19th-century English politician John Dalberg-Acton, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. We do not suggest through this reference that the current administration is corrupt but rather use it as a warning about what unchecked power can create.

The Parliament is the check on the executive in our system of democracy. It must be able to stop and correct the executive if it is on a path the Parliament deems undesirable.

If the Parliament by sheer virtue of its makeup of members is rendered incapable or situationally constrained from being that check on executive power, then the environment is made ripe for governments to run afoul of the people’s interests, regardless of whether that may have been their intention at the start.

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