Wrong answer

Finance Minister Colm Imbert.
Finance Minister Colm Imbert.

ACTING PRIME Minister Colm Imbert twice invoked the doctrine of Cabinet collective responsibility on Monday in Parliament during Prime Minister’s Questions.

Asked by Barataria/San Juan MP Saddam Hosein whether Attorney General Reginald Armour, SC, had disclosed any conflict of interest in the Piarco International Airport case to Cabinet, Mr Imbert replied: “The deliberations of Cabinet are confidential.”

When Oropouche East MP Dr Roodal Moonilal queried whether the Government was saying the matter was a secret, the acting Prime Minister said: “As I indicated, the deliberations of Cabinet are confidential.”

In so doing, Mr Imbert drew upon a long-respected constitutional principle, inherited from Britain’s Westminster tradition, which stipulates cabinet ministers must not reveal deliberations among themselves and must show solidarity with cabinet decisions whatever their private misgivings.

It was an inappropriate use of this convention which set a dangerous precedent for our parliamentary democracy.

There is good reason for Cabinet responsibility. Ministers must be free to raise concerns and privately debate among themselves. As a corollary to this, a cabinet’s policy-making powers would be weakened if its own members do not support its measures.

And so the offshoot of this convention stipulates cabinet members must resign should they come to a point at which they can no longer reconcile their private views with those adopted by the government.

Mr Imbert’s invocation of the doctrine might not have been as jarring had it occurred at a Cabinet briefing or media conference. Indeed, so frequently is the doctrine invoked at state engagements when questioning becomes tough that it is now a stock response.

However, the acting Prime Minister was being questioned in Parliament and, worse yet, during Prime Minister’s Questions.

While it is a longstanding feature of the British parliament, Prime Minister’s Questions is a relatively new addition to our parliamentary procedure; it was introduced in 2015.

All parliamentary questions are of importance, but questions posed to a sitting prime minister go to the heart of the power of Parliament to foster transparency and to hold any government to account. They are of utmost importance.

The issue of whether Mr Armour disclosed any conflict and when, the circumstances and timing of the assignment of another minister to handle the Piarco case, as well as questions relating to the gazetting of ministerial duties, are all matters of national importance tied to the general performance of the Government.

As such, they are plainly matters fit for parliamentary scrutiny through the tool of Prime Minister’s Questions.

In this instance, Parliament’s power to make a sitting prime minister (including an acting one) answer overrides the need for Cabinet responsibility, the purpose of which is to advance good governance, not to act as a shield against scrutiny to be wielded when most convenient.


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