The constitution has identified principles that are fundamental to the welfare, safety, and good governance of the citizens of Dominica. These include fundamental human rights and freedoms, ,social justice, including individual opportunity based on merit and integrity, democratic participation and respect for moral and spiritual values and the rule of law. All the above principles are enshrined in the provisions of Chapter I.

The Constitution further established a Parliament with powers to make laws for good governance consistent with the above principles (Chapter III);

created an executive for administering these laws and ensuring compliance (Chapter IV); established Courts to adjudicate in cases of non-compliance (including the power to administer penalties) and in cases of malfeasance, both civil and public (Chapter VII) and provided for the appointment of a Parliamentary Commissioner to investigate administrative abuse or misuse of authority (Chapter IX).

The principles set out in the Constitution and the institutions created with responsibility for their maintenance should ensure a just and stable society. But this is not always the case. The institutions set up by the Constitution to govern and ensure good governance have not measured up to the task not because of any intrinsic weakness in their organization, but due largely to the inadequate rules under which they operate.

This deficiency is especially critical in small societies where decisions which affect peoples’ lives and fortunes tend to be less objective and impersonal than in larger societies. The extent of political influence in small societies tends to be disproportionate to the strength of public resistance to, and countervailing pressures against the power of the Executive. There is, therefore, an imperative for rules drawn up to govern the workings of those institutions set up by the Constitution to be strong on performance review and accountability and for there to be effective checks and balances on executive actions.


Parliament makes laws to empower the Executive to govern the affairs of the State (including laws for the raising of revenue and loans and for their appropriation and use). This authority given by the Constitution to empower the Executive carries with it a responsibility on parliament to ensure that the Executive administers those laws efficiently, effectively, fairly and in accordance with its wishes and intentions. This makes the Executive accountable to parliament.

The structure of parliamentary control over the Executive is determined by the power given to it by Sec. 52 to regulate its own procedure and make rules for the orderly conduct of its proceedings. Such procedures and rules are embodied in the Standing Orders. Basically, control is exercised through debates and voting on bills and motions presented to parliament, question time when members may seek information on the administration by the Executive and, on financial matters, deliberations and reports by the Committee of Supply and the Public Accounts Committee.

While the machinery exists for parliament to maintain control over the Executive, the issue is whether this control is sufficiently effective. To consider this issue, the structure of parliament itself needs to be examined. Parliament is made up of twenty-one elected members and nine senators. The political party with the largest number of elected members forms the Executive, and is permitted to appoint five of the nine-member senate. A Speaker is elected from among the members or among persons who are not members. The rules for the conduct of such elections are contained in para. 4 of the Standing Orders and, notwithstanding convention which recognizes the need for consensus between the opposition and the government, clearly favour the majority party. In effect, the leader of the majority of members in parliament controls decisions taken in parliament and, despite convention, is likely to control the proceedings in parliament to the extent that the independent role of the Speaker is often prejudiced by the dictates of party loyalty. In more sophisticated societies where conventions are more likely to be respected (although not always), accommodations are made to maintain a semblance of the supremacy of parliament and the independence (non-partisanship) of the Speaker. In general, even in the more sophisticated societies, the Executive emerges as the supreme authority (de facto).

This anomaly creates the illusion (made real in practice) that the Executive has authority to “rule” and not merely to “govern” in accordance with the authority given to it by parliament. The mechanisms set up for control of and accountability to parliament (as described above), are made ineffective because of the overwhelming influence of the majority in power. Even in the workings of the Public Accounts Committee set up to review the efficiency of use of parliamentary appropriations, there is a perception of ineffectualness in the exercise of those functions. This is not to say that the government in power must not take a leadership position in parliament. Lord Morrison, in his book Government and Parliament made it clear that “the duly elected majority must rule”; but he cautioned that “our belief in government by majority certainly does not mean that the majority should act in an arbitrary spirit”. He also held that “just as the government has not, and ought not to have, absolute power, neither have nor ought the back-benchers to have absolute power ….. If back-benchers could freely do just as they liked according to their individual wishes or prejudices, we would have parliamentary chaos, and the orderliness and authority of government would be seriously impaired.”  

The question is: how can parliamentary control and supremacy be maintained without nullifying the basic principles of democratic government or weakening the legitimate authority of the Executive? Lord Morrison’s tenets are appropriate and workable in the U.K. situation where parliament’s behaviour is conditioned by long tradition and deeply entrenched convention. But this is not necessarily so in our case. It is possible that if more of the Carib/Arawak culture had survived, the concept of individual independence within a communal framework might lend itself more amenably to the U.K. situation. But like most third world countries, we are still conditioned by the paramount chief syndrome which tends to place unlimited power in the hands of strong leaders.  The task of the Constitution should be not to reduce this power but to regulate it.

One approach is to adjust the balance of power in parliament by changing its composition. The overriding power of party leaders over constituency candidates and the narrow subjectivity of constituency perspectives weaken the quality of representation at the national level. Furthermore, constituency loyalties and even subservience proscribe the expression of objective thought and action on the part of individual candidates. In addition, strict party loyalty and commitment to a political leader do not accord with the broader functions of parliament to control the Executive. In cases of misconduct or maladministration by the Executive, parliament has recourse to the vote of no confidence. But party loyalty and the effective stifling of the conscience vote among parliamentarians, even in situations where the government has lost the moral authority to continue in office, nullifies the usefulness of the no confidence vote. Moreover, the political leader in parliament can always restrain independent action by his power to dissolve parliament at his discretion. 

An adjustment in the balance of power in parliament by introducing nationally elected senators (hopefully men of high moral caliber) could help to redress that situation. But in the end parliamentary control can be exercised only to the extent that the executive itself recognizes the need for it and is prepared to accept the principle of parliamentary control of the Executive.   

Another approach is to establish new rules for the conduct of business in parliament – with more specific and binding provisions to make the Executive accountable to parliament for all its actions. Support by the majority in parliament for whatever the Executive presents to it does not favour effective parliamentary scrutiny or the principles of accountability. This is quite evident when the workings of the Committee of Supply and the Public Accounts Committee are observed. 

The first approach has to do with the electoral system which allows for multi-party participation in elections in a first past-the-post system and the division of senate seats in favour of the majority party in parliament. The reality of politics suggests that any system devised will in course of time be dominated by the party system. None-the-less, the following is proposed to redress the balance of power in parliament:

  1. For the election of ordinary members, reduce the number of constituencies to fifteen or such number as would give constituency members sixty per cent of the membership in the House, and continue with the first-past-the-post system.
  2. For the senate, increase the number to ten or such number as would give the senate forty per cent of the membership of the House, with election by individual majority (individual ranking on the basis of the number of national votes received) on an island-wide (i.e. not constituency) basis.
  3. For the Speaker, election by the elected members, including senators, from a slate of candidates put forward by the Prime Minister and other parties represented in parliament.

In this scenario, the senate as national representatives, would continue to work within a unicameral system and should as far as possible constitute a third side of the House, although individual members may be co-opted to the Executive (i.e. Cabinet). Indeed, they should function as national representatives and not strictly as party representatives. Also, the party-political bias inherent in the present system for the election of a Speaker could diminish if senators would adopt a more independent role.

The second approach has to do with mechanisms for effective parliamentary scrutiny of proposals put forward by the Executive and for monitoring and auditing the performance of the Executive. Apart from Chapter V which deals with Finance (more will be said about this section later in this paper) there are no other provisions to make the Executive accountable to parliament for the authority and resources given to it. It is often averred that the government (meaning the Executive [and further meaning Cabinet]) accounts to the electorate. But the electorate has elected parliament to do its work, not just the Executive. And the constitutional function of parliament is to control the Executive. Any accounting by the Executive should primarily be through parliament. The procedures and rules of parliament should, therefore, provide for the following:

  1. At the commencement of its term in office, presentation of government’s plans and policy framework consistent with its election manifesto and consistent with the general principles enunciated in the recital to the Constitution and the more elaborate provisions made in Chapter I.  
  2. Annual ministerial plans and work programmes consistent with the above and which will form the basis for annual appropriations.
  3. Annual or semi-annual reports on ministerial operations.
  4. The report of the Public Accounts Committee.

There should be at least one session each year devoted to reviewing the work of the Executive at which all the above should be debated and formally adopted by parliament.

The most crucial issue that affects parliamentary control is the size of the Executive. In recent times, the size of the Executive has become disproportionate to the membership of parliament itself to the extent that the voting power of members of Cabinet is greater than the voting power of the rest of parliament. In effect, there has been a reversal of roles in which the Executive has assumed control over parliament. 

To correct this anomaly, it will be necessary to place limits on the size of the Executive so that parliament may be able to outvote members of the Executive on any matter placed before it. To that effect, the proviso to Article 59(4) of the Constitution should be extended to limit the number of members of the Executive (including parliamentary secretaries and the Attorney General) to no more than forty per cent of the total membership of parliament.

Alick Lazare

About the author:

Alick Lazare is a former Financial Secretary, and Fiscal Consultant, Dominica. He is also a poet and the author of two novels, Pharcel: Runaway Slave and Kalinago Blood.

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