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Very small backbench shaping up once again

Of the 32 Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) MPs elected to Parliament last week, 20 are Cabinet ministers and seven were appointed to serve as parliamentary secretaries, leaving just five MPs who are not a part of the executive.

Of the five who remain, a speaker and deputy speaker must also be appointed.

There are just seven MPs in the official opposition, and the executive branch is once again large – something that many observers say undermines one of the constitutionally mandated functions of the legislative branch, which is to hold the executive accountable. 

In the Westminster system, Cabinet members, as well as parliamentary secretaries, are constrained by collective responsibility – a convention that holds that members must publicly support decisions made by the Cabinet, even if they personally disagree with them. Those disagreements are to be expressed in Cabinet meetings, but not publicly.

The issue came to the forefront during the last Minnis administration when the then-prime minister fired Travis Robinson and Vaughn Miller from their posts as parliamentary secretaries, and fired Frederick McAlpine from his post as chairman of the Hotel Corporation, after they voted against the increase in value-added tax in 2018.

The backbench is comprised of the MPs who do not serve in the executive; it plays a vital role in publicly raising concerns over Cabinet-approved decisions in the interest of constituents, who elected them to Parliament.

The issue of the “gussie mae” Cabinet is not a new one, with consecutive governments in recent years facing criticisms over size of their Cabinets.

When he came to office in 2017, Dr. Hubert Minnis had 19 ministers, including himself. Minnis also had four parliamentary secretaries. 

Former Speaker of the House Halson Moultrie was repeatedly critical of Minnis’ large Cabinet, and often raised concerns that the legislative branch of government was “constrained” in fulfilling its constitutional oversight of the executive branch by reason of not being autonomous and independent.

Former Chief Clerk of Parliament Maurice Tynes said yesterday that while he understands the administrative challenges facing governments, particularly given The Bahamas’ geography, the small backbench will inevitably create issues with the legislative branch’s ability to fulfill its constitutional mandate.

“It has become a continual trend with prime ministers,” Tynes said.

“… I understand that with The Bahamas being an archipelagic nation, the administration is quite daunting and you would want people in place who could oversee each of the component parts of the executive branch. And I think that’s one of the reasons why you’re seeing these large Cabinets. 

“… But it could be a problem with these large Cabinets and the House of Assembly would not be able to fulfill its constitutional mandate properly.”

Tynes said yesterday he believes that when parties win elections by a large majority, the many Cabinet appointments are also used to keep MPs “comfortable and satisfied”.

He believes there must be an overhaul of the legislative branch, which he said consecutive governments have treated as a “stepchild”.

“I would like to see an overhaul of the whole parliamentary system,” Tynes said.

“The legislative branch is the one branch in the government that has been overlooked over the years. Several speakers, especially the last speaker, they have spoken about this.

“They build office buildings for ministries and departments. And they build courts for the judiciary, but they never, ever do anything for the Parliament. And I think that has to change and I think the whole institution of Parliament needs reform. I really think we are at the place now where we need full-time members of Parliament. 

“I think before that happens, you need a proper legislative or parliamentary complex so all the members of Parliament could have their separate offices to do their job properly.”

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Rachel Scott

Rachel joined The Nassau Guardian in January 2019. Rachel covers national issues. Education: University of Virginia in Charlottesville, BA in Foreign Affairs and Spanish

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