Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit on the campaign platform in Pointe Michel
Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit on the campaign platform in Pointe Michel

Maybe it was the way he said it. When Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit told trade union boss Thomas Letang in a speech that he delivered at the launching of the Dominica Labour Party (DLP) candidate for the Roseau South constituency on Sunday 19 May 2019 at the New Town Savanah that "My Brother, I run things in Dominica", the statement sounded full of arrogance, overflowing with hubris. But we understand: prime ministers in the Caribbean are all kings.

Undoubtedly, Prime Minister Skerrit has been ruling with all the pomp and power of a king, an emperor, an emir and some would say with the absolute power of a dictator in a banana republic; a big, big fish in that small, small pond that is Dominica.

But that's how kings ruled in antiquity. King Louis XIV of France in the 18th century, for example, proclaimed, "I am the State." He also said, "Salvation belongs to God. Everything else is my affair."

Ezra Alleyne in an article entitled "For the Record: The Power of the Prime Minister" in Nation News in 2011 wrote: "The office of Prime Minister represents an almost direct transfer of the ancient powers of the king, circumscribed only by the fact that the Prime Minister rules under law, whereas the king did not. The prime minister is functionally more powerful than the president (of the United States" .

Of course, Alleyne was writing about Barbados but the like-a-king prime minister of Barbados is the same as in Dominica and in all states of the Caribbean, for that matter.

To his credit, Prime Minister Skerrit recognises the absolute power that has been bestowed on him, and other prime ministers, by the constitutions of Caribbean countries. He said as much during the April 29, 2019 meeting of parliament: "I believe the constitution gives the prime minister too much power. But that has to be used judiciously, it has to be used carefully."

But whether Prime Minister Skerrit has been using his seemingly limitless power "judiciously" is very questionable.

Other prime ministers have recognised the power of their positions. For instance, Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Skerrit's mentor, almost a year after he became first among equals said the power of prime ministers in the Commonwealth Caribbean was excessive. Gonsalves said: "[T]he powers of the Prime Minister are awesome in the political system of a small nation-state. Whether these powers are exercised capriciously or not, through authoritative conduct or authoritarian means, sensitively or not, depend not only on the extent, in practical terms, of the democratic ethos in the political culture but also on the character, disposition, conduct and vision of the Prime Minister himself."

Note that Gonsalves contends that whether the power of the prime minister is abused depends on the political culture and the "democratic ethos" as well as the "character, disposition, conduct and vision of the Prime Minister himself".

Gonsalves spoke in Barbados in 2002 at a regional conference on Caribbean Constitutional Reform and his statement sent shock waves throughout the region; but even before he made that statement Barbadian Prime Ministers Tom Adams and Sir Erskine Sandiford had decried the excessive power of prime ministers.

But to put Skerrit's "I-run-things-in-Dominica" statement in full context, recall that Letang, the general secretary of the Dominica Public Service Union (DPSU), was forcibly challenging Prime Minister Skerrit's decision to meet with junior clerks and other lower level officials of the civil service at precisely the same time that the union was agitating for increased salaries, wages and better working conditions for government employees.

Letang, of course, is right: Politicians should not meet and discuss working conditions with junior civil servants when their union is engaging the administration in negotiations. Mr. Skerrit's meetings appear to be a blatant move at undermining the DPSU and damaging the political independence of the civil service. Skerrit probably believes that since he "runs things", traditions such as the independence of the civil service matters not and he should not restrain him. But by meeting with junior civil servants in the way he did the Prime Minister must appreciate that he is corroding the very principles on which the civil service was founded.

Returning to our main topic of the power of the prime minister, we note that he: Appoints the President and Speaker of the House of Assembly; advises the President on the dissolution of Parliament; decides on the administration and function of all government ministries; chairs the Cabinet and appoints ministers and relieves them of their posts; appoints a majority of senators, ambassadors, high commissioners, and a majority of senior public posts; nominates persons for various honours and awards; advises the President on the appointment of a majority of the public service commission; advises upon and veto potential candidates for the position of Commissioner of Police; negotiates treaties, conventions, and contracts; and effectively serves as the de facto head of state by leading foreign engagements and diplomatic initiatives overseas; decides on agents for the selling of passports; controls state resources including the budget's revenue and expenditure.

And in the prime minister's control over the agenda of parliament that's where we see the exercise of his real power. As we said in an earlier editorial entitled "Let's face the truth: Our parliamentary system is broken" Dominica's parliament is a little more than a rubber stamp for Prime Minister Skerrit's policies and programmes. Undoubtedly, the way that that today's Parliament operates leaves much to be desired. The Government appears to believe that parliament, the Speaker included, is merely an extension of the ruling DLP; it behaves as if debates and critiques are annoyances that should be minimised.

So, the so-called separation of parliament from the executive is a myth. Note that that myth is being promulgating in the current debate on electoral reform. The government and parliament's main function, we are told, are to draft and pass laws but few persons seem to notice that the government and parliament are under the direct control of the all-powerful Prime Minister.

All this tells us that we need to ensure that the checks and balances in the system work well and we need to think a lot more seriously about reforming the Constitution of Dominica.