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Individual ministerial responsibility

Published: 
Sunday, May 8, 2016

Within the last two weeks, there have been situations within the Government that revealed a clash between individual ministers exercising their powers under the doctrine of individual ministerial responsibility contrary to the opinions of the Prime Minister.

The two ministers involved were Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh and Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs Faris Al-Rawi.

In the case of Minister Deyalsingh, he told the media the following at a press conference three Fridays ago:

“We are exactly where we were two weeks ago, two years ago. I have an oath of office and that implies every law of the land. I have made it crystal clear that that issue is already covered by the code of ethics of Trinidad and Tobago…If the conversation of Zika is only about abortion then we will be doing TT a disservice because the conversation was never about abortion, but about source reduction…I don’t deny that this is a convenient topic to sell news, but we are doing the country a disservice by only focussing on that when the focus should be squarely on source reduction…Let us keep our eyes on the prize. The prize is not to get bitten, clean your surroundings, pregnant women should wear long, light-coloured clothing. Let us work on this particular issue and not be sidetracked by this issue. I am very clear that my responsibility as Minister of Health is two-fold—source reduction and applying the laws of the land…Following your logic, would you go to all those parents who love their children and tell them that they should have aborted their children because it is a challenge for them whether poor, rich, middle class or indifferent?...I am ending this discussion of abortion. We are putting protocols in place to treat with babies who may be born with microcephaly. The same protocols that we use with our learnings with autism, cerebral palsy and everything else.” (Newsday, April 23, 2016).

Anna Ramdass reporting in the Express about Prime Minister Rowley’s response to his Health Minister wrote: 

“Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh is not the Government of Trinidad and Tobago and the discussion on abortion remains open, says Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley. Rowley addressed the controversial issue at yesterday’s post-Cabinet news conference at the Diplomatic Centre, St Ann’s. Pointed out by a journalist that Deyalsingh last Friday at his news conference had said he was ending the conversation on abortion and no longer discussing it, the Prime Minister said the minister may have done this but the discussion is taking place in the country.” (Express, April 29, 2016).

Minister Deyalsingh’s response to his Prime Minister contradicting him in public was to say that he had been misquoted. However, it was absolutely clear that Minister Deyalsingh was exercising his individual ministerial responsibility to state clearly for the record that (i) he was upholding the law of the land that abortion was illegal, and (ii) he was ending the discussion on abortion. He chose not to challenge his Prime Minister in public.

The core principles of the doctrine of individual ministerial responsibility are (i) the advice rule under which every minister is entitled to departmental advice before making up their own mind on policy positions; (ii) the culpability rule under which the minister is responsible for policy error; and, (iii) the propriety rule under which ministers are expected to conduct themselves with a certain degree of public propriety. 

Another situation involving individual ministerial responsibility arose last Monday at the pre-departure press conference held by Prime Minister Rowley before he left on his overseas travels. He was asked about a front page story in the Guardian under the headline AG Looks At Legal Ganja by senior political reporter Gail Alexander.

Reporter Rhondor Dowlat writing in the Guardian on the next day reported:

“Rowley said he would be surprised if Al-Rawi spoke to decriminalising marijuana despite the fact that it was not discussed in Cabinet. ‘I lead the Cabinet and I don’t know that any such examination is taking place. I’ve seen the headline, I haven’t read the story but I’m pretty sure the Attorney General will really want to explain that. We have been in office for seven months and so whatever conversation generated that headline, there is certainly some misunderstanding there,’ Rowley said.” (Guardian, May 3, 2016).

The response of Al-Rawi was very different to that of Deyalsingh as reported in the same Guardian story when he said:

“I am the Attorney General of T&T and it is quite simple, the questions posed to me by Gail Alexander were in the context of the work that’s going on in the prison system. Specifically, the questions were posed in the context of the maximum sentencing approach and the issue that the Archbishop has raised, which coincides with the issue that we put into the public domain of really looking to see how people who are remanded have been managed by the criminal justice system.” 

He publicly stated that he does not report to the Prime Minister on everything that is going on in his ministry, which revealed some defiance.

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