Westminster’s Systemic Catch 22: an executive of ‘GOATS’ vs. Politicians

“For many, ‘representation’ is synonymous with political reward, or patronage. Ministerial posts are also now used as a means of ensuring loyalty, or at least acceptance of the government approach. Prime Ministers wish to appoint those who are loyal: both to the party and to his or her own position as party leader.”–(Young and Hazel, 2011).

In my childhood years I could only recall a maximum of four times when my mother felt it was necessary reprimand me in true Belizean style. One of those times occurred when I was about eight years old, and I decided to jokingly throw politically charged obloquies at our neighbour whose relation to a highly ranked area representative made him a “politically exposed” person (if I may use that term loosely). 

His name was brought up in the media for having been implicated in a form of corruption. And I, as a young child, having watched it on the news and seen the newspaper headlines, commented on it amongst my friends one weekend morning, while in my own yard. To my defence, it might has well been a form of literary apostrophe, given that I’m certain the subject of my criticism (a much older man to whom I’d obviously show respect) was unable to hear me. Nonetheless, once the news of my actions reached my mother’s ear, I was found guilty.

For the most part, this story has become one of the many ingredients for jocular episodes of familial reminiscence; but I bring it up here simply to point out one obvious fact: the topic of corruption  has been a constantly recurring topic within the public sphere for decades. An eight-year-old version of myself would take one back twenty-three years. I can quite LITERALLY say I have grown up hearing about corruption in politics.

The Core of the Problem

Maybe it’s a symptom of being a millennial, but I find it utterly ridiculous that this one issue tends to reappear almost like clockwork over the bulk of our post-independence political life as a country.  More importantly, the forms of corruption are almost identical in many aspects, with only the names and faces being substituted.

Corruption is a chronic disease that is so systematic that one could almost design a mathematical model to predict how and when certain issues would come up. It is this systematic nature that has led me to the sound belief that this chronic disease is systemic.

Like all chronic diseases, it has been a long-term problem and it is caused by lifestyle risk factors that demand behavioural changes. For instance, one of the most common example of chronic illness could be seen in the strong positive correlation between tobacco smoking and lung cancer. If one wishes to minimise his risks of becoming a lung-cancer patient, the requisite behavioural change would be to quit smoking, which could be classified as one of the core problems.

Keeping with the analogy, then, what would be among the primary risk factors for the corruption cancer? If we agree that simply changing the brand of cigarette you smoke wouldn’t be enough to lower risks, but rather it’s breaking the habit completely, then why is it that that is what we do with our politics?

Changing the “brand” of politicians (i.e. Red vs. Blue vs. Yellow vs. Green), in my view, is quite pointless. It’s the very Westminster-style of parliamentary democracy that we’ve inherited from the United Kingdom that requires some attention. Said differently, the core of the chronic problem is not predominantly the politician (they’re human so expect them to be corruptible); it is the very “brand” of politics we utilise.

The Inherent Flaws of the Westminster System

Now, let me be clear here. I am not recommending a presidential system akin to that found in the United States, but rather suggesting plausible amendments to our parliamentary system.

Like any parliamentary democracy, the government of the day must enjoy the confidence of the Legislature. The Prime Minister is generally chosen from the party that has obtained the “majority” of votes. This practice can become a bit more complex when the country in question employs proportional representation as opposed to the first-past-the-post voting system found in Belize. But the conversation of the former versus the latter would be saved for another day.

The focus here is as it pertains to the so-called ‘separation of powers’ doctrine. In Belize, like many parliamentary democracies, most Cabinet ministers are chosen from a limited pool of area representatives who are members of the House of Representatives. Even if an ‘outsider’ is brought in as a minister, our Constitution mandates that he be appointed to the Senate.

At this point I’d like to return to the quote at the beginning of this article taken from a 2011 report entitled “Putting Goats among Wolves: Appointing Ministers from Outside Parliament” and written by Dr. Ben Young and Professor Robert Hazel of the University College of London (UCL)’s Department of Political Science. (Please note the term “GOATS” is an acronym for “Government of All Talents”, and references ‘outside’ of parliament ministers).

Hazel and Young wrote: “For many, ‘representation’ is synonymous with political reward, or patronage. Ministerial posts are also now used as a means of ensuring loyalty, or at least acceptance of the government approach. Prime Ministers wish to appoint those who are loyal: both to the party and to his or her own position as party leader.”—(Young and Hazel, 2011).

The duo—whose report was designed to take a comparative look at the overall performance of ministers of cabinet chosen from outside parliament (Outsiders) and those who were from among career politicians—raised this point several times throughout their study. In one instance, they also quoted from the UK’s Public Administration Select Committee (2009):

“[T]he underlying problem seems to be that the system of political reward—the allocation of ministerial roles—is not directly related to an assessment of the actual requirements of government. Appointment to ministerial office is instead used for other purposes, including recognition of political loyalty” (Young and Hazel, 2011, p. 13).

Anyone who regularly tracks local news would be fully aware that this mindset has taken hold, at least in a de facto sense, in Belize. We saw this come up recently when the Ministry of Natural Resources was taken from the then Deputy Prime Minister Gaspar Vega and given over to Senator Godwin Hulse. (It has since been given to Senator Vanessa Retreage, another “outsider”).

I will not enter into speculations into the specifics of how that case led to the current status of Gaspar Vega. However, given the nature of parliamentary democracies, it would be safe to say that such speculations are not without their merits. Even Hazel and Young, whose study involved several interviews with former “Outsiders”, put it this way:

“The fact that these outsider ministers had not come from a political party or through the traditional recruitment path sometimes put them at a disadvantage. One outsider minister complained that jealousy caused by thwarted ambition sometimes spilled over into team relations. He could never be sure if he would be backed up by the party. … Many working peers thought membership in the party was a prerequisite: it ensured loyalty” (Young and Hazel, 2011, p. 39).

Now, this experience was from the mother of our parliamentary democracy, so we should not have been surprised at the rumours regarding the difficulties that Hulse may have had with many of his Cabinet colleagues. To begin with, it was risky for Prime Minister Dean Barrow to appoint Hulse. Is there any surprise that he’s so reluctant to remove him to meet the demands of the Belize National Teachers’ Union (BNTU)? But that too is another matter for another time.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair also addressed the pervasive nature of this ministerial rewards system in his biography:

“Also, a prime minister or president is always engaged in a kind of negotiation over the state of their party that requires people’s ambitions to be assuaged. … If you don’t promote someone, after a time, they resent you. If you promote them, you put someone else out, and then that person resents you. You look for an elaborate index of methods to keep the offloaded onside, but let me tell you from experience: it never works. ….Unless you give them something that really is spectacular as an alternative to being a minister, then they aren’t fooled […] So, you have to reshuffle” (Blair, 2010).

So there you have it. The very structure leads to the playing of politics with our ministerial posts, which essentially means playing politics with the governance of our resources.

Enter Clientelism

Of course, this feature of our politics shows up even on the campaign trail. Any voter who had ever had a candidate make promises regarding land or house or the like has basically dealt with someone that promised based on his expected position within Cabinet, which speaks to his stewardship of or access to the country’s resources.

Consequently, myriads could be said here about the potential bedlam that occurred that day when Hulse was named as Minister of Natural Resources, and the subsequent reports of area representatives weakened abilities to fulfil some of those “promises”. This inability to easily fulfil some campaign promises (not just land promises) to one’s constituents placed some parliamentarians’ seat in some jeopardy. Now, let’s recall that in a parliamentary democracy, the government of the day has to enjoy the “confidence” of the legislature; therefore, politicians would view any threat to their ability to win in their constituency as a big problem.

But why wouldn’t they be able to win in their constituencies if they cannot make those promises as easily?  Why can’t they promise the masses of voters in their respective constituencies that they’ll fight for policies that are best for them and the country as a whole? I mean policies matter, right?

Certainly the average Belizean voter would say to a candidate: “Look, don’t promise me that YOU will get my house fixed; don’t YOU say you’ll work to get me a piece of land; tell me that you and your party will make the requisite policy changes that would enable me or any Belizean to benefit from such things because the system would be designed in such a way for such to be possible.” That’s not likely given the immediate needs of many voters who’d lack incentives to opt for a ‘policy’ promise that would be slower than a direct ministerial intervention.

Therein lies the rub, yet again! Here we have laid the perfect foundation for an all around spoiler system to flourish, leading to the manifestations of what former Lake-I representative Mark King encapsulated in one phrase: “UDP first, Belizeans second, and PUP last”.

Is there a Solution?

Unlike the United Kingdom, parliamentary democracies such as Sweden, The Netherlands, and France are known for appointing outsiders to Cabinet. Actually, the constitution of these countries demand that a member of any House of Parliament should resign before taking up any ministerial post.

Yes, as Young and Hazel (2011) pointed out, in more recent years, a larger number of ministers have some parliamentary background, thereby, increasing the politicisation of Cabinets while simultaneously decreasing the professionalisation of the same, but this does not make the principle itself devoid of logic and inherent usefulness.

At the end of their report, Young and Hazel, presented mixed results. “The comparative experience provides little in the way of evaluation. Are those appointed via a non-parliamentary route ‘better’ than those appointed via a parliamentary route?” They added. “There is no hard data to provide a basis for comparison; and some of the more important criteria for such an evaluation are inevitable subjective” (Young and Hazel, 2011, p. 85).

Said differently, the outsider ministers were able to do the job. Please note, however, that Young and Hazel did not discuss corruption; they looked at performance on the job. Extending the “outsider” concept to corruption is a bit of an extrapolation of their ideas.

What is a Minister’s Job?

In the most professional sense, a ministers job could be categorised into four main roles: the policy role, the executive/managerial function, the political roles, and the public relations aspects.

The “Outsiders” were found by Young and Hazel’s study to be do well with the policy and executive/managerial functions. More precisely, the study said ‘outsiders’ “revelled in the policy function.” That, however, should come as no surprise as these outside experts were brought into government for the purpose of management and policy implementation.

The technocratic ministers, however, were found to be weakest at the parliamentary politics. The study also showed that they had some difficulty in dealing with the media and other interest groups, which fall within the public relations component of their job descriptions.

What Matters Most?

If I would have to choose which of those four general functions ought to be prioritised, my list, in descending order of importance would have to be as follows: Policy and Executive/Managerial Function tied for first place, Public Relations second, and lastly, the Political Roles.

Unlike Sweden, The Netherlands and France whose electoral systems are a bit more complicated (and parliament much larger in terms of members) and at times made up of coalition governments, Belize’s structure is fairly simple. Therefore, I see less need for a minister to possess political and parliamentary skills. In terms of public relations, that skill can easily be taught in a series of training sessions for new ministers, or delegated to a communications team within the given ministry.

But, if we wish to continuously gripe about the need for efficiency in governance, then the Policy and Executive Functions should indeed be a priority.

Let there be Outsiders

Now, here’s where my ideals deviate from the points and recommendations raised by Young and Hazel (2011), who suggested that Cabinet ministers should be “hybrids”: “candidates who have both technocratic and political skills” (or a so-called ‘policrat’, if you will).

While many Cabinet ministers in the aforementioned countries were once members of parliament, my definition of “outsiders” would be almost exclusively of technocrats that are completely “above politics”, and preferably chosen based almost entirely on their expertise in the ministerial portfolio.

In terms of going about selecting a would-be minister, I agree with Young and Hazel that the Prime Minister should still be the one to select his ministers. However, in terms of having accountability on their appointments, these nominees should be made to sit in pre-appointment hearings held by the relevant House Committees. For example, a would-be ‘outsider’ minister of Natural Resources would have to be interviewed (maybe even publicly) by the Natural Resources and Environment Committee that would assess the candidates’ qualifications.

A bad review shouldn’t preclude the Prime Minister from still proceeding with the appoint; however, a public bad review could serve to discourage the Prime Minister from making such an appointment (Young and Hazel 2011, p. 87). Of course, this has the double effect of forcing the Prime Minister to seek out the best candidates possible.

Potential Outcome?

Immediately, the pros and cons of such a change become apparent. In my estimation, the society at large would benefit first of all from ministers who are actually mavens in their specific portfolios. Policies would be more thought out and its implementation expedited. More importantly, the country’s resources would supposedly be managed more efficiently.

On the political side, it disrupts the foundation of clientelism discussed above, as an area representative—no longer guaranteed a seat in Cabinet—will have to focus on national (cross-the-board) policies over ‘spoiler’ promises, and minimising much of the inequality that is prevalent under any system where clientelism prevails. From a corruption standpoint, it’s my firm belief that the systemic corruption also begins at this level.

Of course, on the negative side, this removes the “reward-punishment” powers of the Prime Minister in parliament. As Young and Hazel (2011, p. 28) put it:

“Members of the government [who would also be members of parliament] themselves have no choice but to vote for the government: they vote against and they lose their government office. … Ministerial office becomes a gift of patronage as much as an office with substance.”

This would mean that a prime minister would have to attract people who are loyal to his cause to join his ranks. He wouldn’t be able to easily “penalise” them for voting out of line. And therein lies the perfect Catch 22 scenario: to form government in a parliamentary democracy, a Prime Minister needs his ‘merry men’ who traditionally need an incentive to stay loyal. But this structure of ‘ministerial rewards and punishment’ leads to its own problems that hurt the masses.

In the End

Ultimately, the Belizean people would have to decide how long they’d like to remain in a system that engenders behaviours that lead to chronic corruption and inefficiencies. But, like the tobacco smoker who’d have to quit his habit or addiction, the withdrawal symptoms would not be pleasant at first.

Naturally, for such a system of “outsiders” to work a lot of Constitutional amendments may be necessary, and certainly there are some finer points in other laws that we’d have to look at. However, no one said reform is easy. But let’s see if 23 years from now some other parent’s eight-year-old child would still be talking about corruption in their yard, and later grow up to write another blog on a similar, if not the same, topic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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