The Ministerial System

Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago

Last Tuesday his Excellency the Governor made a declaration in Council about the ministerial system proposed by the Secretary of State for the Colonies.

The declaration may be summed up as follows:

  1. Next Tuesday the unofficial members of the Legislative Council are going to elect four members from their midst to sit in the Executive Council.
  2. The Governor is going to nominate 5 unofficial members to the Executive Council.
  3. 6 out of the 9 members of the Executive Council will become Ministers with portfolios.

So, next week will witness the introduction of a ministerial system in Mauritius. All this sounds very promising and progressive. But, in fact, is the ministerial system acceptable?

In the concluding part of the declaration, the Governor says: “As will be apparent, the introduction of the ministerial system is to be regarded as a stage of the whole constitutional plan. Changes in the constitutional instruments will be required in due course and must be given effect at least by the time of the next Legislative Council elections.”

The general elections will be held in 1958, and it looks as if other constitutional reforms would be delayed until then. Why is the ministerial system being introduced before other reforms? Is it a means of paving the way for the smooth passing of the unpopular reforms? Is it a sugar-coating to the bitter pill of P.R. (Proportional Representation) which is in store?

* * *

The whole country is anxious to know what the unofficial members of the Legislation Council think of doing next Tuesday. People are more eager to know what the majority party — the Labour Party — proposes to do.

Is the Labour party going to accept the ministerial system? The stand the Party is going to take is a secret up to now. We wonder why an important issue like this one has been kept in the dark.

In considering whether to accept or reject any ministerial system, the Labour party has to be very careful. We believe that by accepting the system as it stands, the Labour party will be jumping in a cart which has been placed before the horse. How else can we visualize the collective responsibility of ministers before self government?

Let us see what kind of Executive Council the Secretary of State wants to give us. In paragraph 5 of his despatch No 51, contained in Sessional Paper No 3 of 1956, we find: “It will be apparent from the preceding paragraph that I have in mind the introduction of a system under which the Executive Council will form a team including representatives of all the major interests in the Legislative Council and will also have responsibility for the government of the colony placed squarely on its shoulders.” And paragraph 6 starts with the following sentence: “It is implicit in my proposals for the Executive Council that it should undertake real executive responsibility in contrast with its present advisory functions.”

* * *

We have only to think a little to realize that it will be impossible for a member of the Executive Council to “undertake real executive responsibility”. Will, for example, the Minister of Education be allowed to carry out a programme of his choice or that of his party?

A Minister will not only be unable to have his own programme or policy but he will also have to endorse any measure proposed by any fellow minister — however unpopular that measure may be and however reluctant he may be either for personal or party reasons.

The Executive Council is the counterpart of the British Cabinet, the growth of which may be outlined by quoting two sentences from the pages of Constitutional history: “During the greater part of the eighteenth century the cabinet was still a body of holders of high office whose relationship with one another was ill defined… Eventually the Representation of the People Act 1832 (the great Reform Bill), brought realizations that, for the future, the Executive must hold the same political views as the majority in Parliament.”

In the year of grace 1956, the Secretary of State wants us to have a pre-1832 cabinet. How wonderful! Are we as backward as all that? If yes, why give us Ministers? We have hardly recovered from the shock of getting Liaison Officers.

It has been said that the whole doctrine of ministerial responsibility rests on one convention: “The Cabinet are responsible to Parliament as a body for the general conduct of affairs.” And this rule is the foundation of parliamentary government as it is known throughout the British Commonwealth. Now, can we imagine how members holding opinions of various political shades and colours will work as a team and be responsible to the Legislative Council?

* * *

The Labour Party has been fighting for Universal Suffrage and Self-Government. Today it is offered the ministerial system in a dramatic way. It must have been sensed that things should be made attractive. As a matter of fact, the Governor has said in his declaration… “ministers charged with specific duties will have to devote much time to their duties and it is fitting both on that score and having regard to their position in the public life of the island that they be remunerated suitably.” Pelf and power, name and fame — all the glitter and glamour of a successful political career, everything to make ministers feel at the top of the world and at the height of their chequered fortunes.

We have spoken before of the ministerial posts as being ministerial carrots. We are as ever convinced today that the carrots dangling in front of the unofficial members have no other purpose than to make the Labour Party go astray. Those who will nibble at the tempting carrots are sure to be lured away to the land of confusion and chaos.

It is sometimes said that colonies cannot have something on the Westminster pattern. And so we are not given the true thing but adulterated fragments. We are used as guinea-pigs in the elaboration of Colonial Constitutions. It’s all a question of hit or miss. If the plan works, it’s all right; if it doesn’t, who cares? A la barbe du pauvre on apprend à raser!

To our mind, the Liaison Officer system, introduced in 1951, has done more harm than good. Under cover of training future ministers, it has made efficient members of Council lose their independence and has taken the sting out of the opposition. The ministerial system, at this stage, is going to do the rest: complete surrender!

(Mauritius Times, Friday 21st September 1956)

* Published in print edition on 7 December 2018

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