The Matthew Commission
Our Constitution has been officially reviewed by two Commissions. The first was appointed by Cabinet letter of May 5th 1981 "to review" the Constitution and "to make recommendations for changes". The Commission comprised A.J.N. Matthew, Attorney-at-Law, as Chairman; J.B.M. Armour, Attorney-at-Law, as Deputy Chairman; Evalina Grell deFreitas, Attorney-at-Law; A. Frederick Joseph, Trade Unionist; E.O. LeBlanc, former Premier; and Dr. William Riviere, Historian. Three persons served in turn as Secretary to the Commission. The first was public servant, Albert Shillingford. He was succeeded by public servant, Coleridge Linton and, then, in July and August 1983 by law student, Davidson Baptiste, now an Honourable Justice of the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal.
The Commission reported on August 10, 1983. It summarized its method like this: "Our report is not unanimous. This is inevitable. But it represented a broad consensus of our views guided, but not governed by the memoranda received from the few people who were motivated sufficiently to express their views". Only eight persons submitted documents. They were Karol Winski, Commissioner of Surveys; W.W. Plender-Keith, landowner; E.C. Loblack, celebrated Trade Unionist; Alick Lazare, public official and writer; E.O. Leblanc, W. Riviere and A. Matthew; and Charles Williams, Kalinago activist.
Coming on the heels of the May-June 1979 popular uprising which swept the Patrick John administration from office, and undoubtedly influenced by the course of events, the Commissioners made what in all the circumstances might be regarded as sweeping recommendations. Indeed, the first-past-the-post system of voting was preferred to the system of proportional representation where, in the Commission's view, "there seem to be inherent dangers of unfair processing of elections". And it advocated the retention of the Westminster model of government, rather than the adoption of a Presidential system along the lines of the United States of America. But it proposed mechanisms to check the overwhelming power which resided in the Office of the Prime Minister and, at the same time, to give the Head of State a less passive role in the conduct of affairs of State.
One such area is the appointment of members of the Public Service Commission. Under Section 84(1) of the Constitution the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of that Commission are appointed by the President on the "advice", that is to say, the direction, of the Prime Minister. Further, two members are appointed, also on the advice of the Prime Minister, from persons selected by civil organizations. And not more than three other members are appointed, once again in accordance with Prime Ministerial advice. In respect of the latter five appointees the Prime Minister, before advising the President, is required to consult with the Leader of the Opposition. But in the cases of the Chairman and Deputy Chairman, such consultation is not required.
The Commissioners recommended that this extra-ordinary power invested in the Prime Minister should be drastically reduced. This should be done by placing in the hands of the President the power to appoint the members of that Commission after consultation with both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.
It was recommended, further, that the control exercised by the Prime Minister over the appointment, disciplinary control and removal of high-ranking public officers should be greatly diminished. Section 86 of the Constitution stipulates that before such appointments are made the advice of the Prime Minister is required. The Commission accepted that such advice might be necessary in the case of the Cabinet Secretary, Permanent Secretaries and Assistant Secretaries. The necessity arose because these appointees were "officers who directly operate government policy and who are required to work in close contact with the Ministers". Otherwise, Prime Ministerial advice was not required. Consequently, it was recommended that in the case of heads of Departments of Government, the Clerk of the House, Chief Professional Advisers to government departments, and Diplomats, no more than the President's consultation with the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition was required. The consensus was that the Public Service Commission "should have the decisive role" in appointing these public officers.
The attention of the Review Commission was also drawn to the Prime Minister's role in the dissolution of Parliament. Section 54(4) entitles the Prime Minister to advise the President to dissolve the House within two (2) days after the passage of a Vote-of-No-Confidence in the government, which advice must be heeded. The Commissioners proposed that the President should act on such advice only in situations where the Prime Minister's call for a dissolution had the "support of a majority of Parliament to this effect". Otherwise, so it was recommended, the President should be entitled to exercise "independent judgment" as to whether to dissolve Parliament and, thereby, pave the way for the holding of general elections or, instead, to call on an elected person with majority support of the House to form the next government.
There were other proposals concerning the office of the President. One was that the holder of the Office should be invested with the right to request to the House that it reconsider any bill, other than money bills, submitted for assent. Another was that the President must be elected by a "clear majority" of all members of Parliament. The third was that it was not proper, as is permissible under Section 28(1)(a) of the Constitution, for the President after consultation with the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, to himself or herself select a person to function as Acting President. And the fourth was that the Office of the President should have its own budget to carry out its functions, from which the Minister of Finance was not authorized to make "arbitrary cuts". For obvious reasons, a similar funding arrangement was recommended for the Electoral Commission and the Constituency and Boundaries Commission.
The nation's court system attracted the notice of the Commissioners. In that regard they admitted the necessity in the circumstances of the early 1980s to "continue our country's participation in the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court." Nonetheless, looking towards the future it was recommended that the Constitution should make "specific" provision for the establishment of a Supreme Court for our country. Further, to ensure good governance, it was proposed, that provision should be made in the Constitution for the establishment of a "Parliamentary Integrity Commission" charged with responsibility for regulating the political conduct of parliamentarians. The intention was to support this agency with legislation which provided appropriate penal sanctions aimed at making observance of the law "effective and efficacious". The 1981 Commissioners, taking account of the comparatively small size of the nation's electorate, recommended that a provision be introduced to set the numerical size of the Cabinet at a maximum of not more than 35 per cent of the total number of parliamentarians.
From the standpoint of the ordinary citizen it may be argued that the most significant recommendation by the Commission was that the Constitution should introduce a new Chapter, entitled "Directive Principles of Government and Fundamental Duties of People". This Chapter would enshrine social, economic and cultural rights to be enjoyed by all citizens, including the right to employment, the right to education, the right to decent housing and the right to literary and artistic expression. These were to be enjoyed as rights, rather than as privileges. And the Chapter would set out duties and responsibilities which the citizenry would be called upon to shoulder at every step along the road to nation-building.
In 1997, that is to say, fourteen (14) years after the 1981 Commissioners had completed their Report, none of the many recommendations had been acted on.
Copyright © William Para Rivière, December 2013