A Comment by VonDez Phipps
I did not attend the recent party convention of the Nevis Reformation Party (NRP) last Sunday, but I should have. As someone who has argued for reform in the constitutional arrangements governing the relationship between the Nevis Island Administration (NIA) and the Federal Government, I really ought to have been present to witness the discussions around a key amendment to the NRP’s constitution. The party’s own public relations did not capture the real significance of what it called a “landmark decision”, and media coverage did little to convey its paradigm-shifting potential. For those who missed it, here’s what happened.
Party faithful and executives congregated at the Jessup’s Community Centre to hear speeches from constituency representatives, party leaders and a guest speaker out of St. Lucia. The convention saw five resolutions being adopted (one from each local constituency) and four amendments were made to the party’s 1970 constitution. One of these amendments was aimed at section 7, which deals with constituency divisions and the selection of candidates. The amendment had two parts: first, it prohibits the selection of a candidate to serve both in the Federal Parliament and the Nevis Island Assembly; and second, it prohibits any candidate currently serving in either the Federal Parliament or the Nevis Island Assembly from also being selected to serve as a candidate in the other. The effect is that the NRP will field one set of candidates for the local elections and an altogether different set of candidates for the Federal, removing the possibility of any NRP politician being a member of the Nevis Island Assembly, and still serving in the Federal Government or Opposition.
This amendment, packaged in under 100 words, could be lost among the major political speeches and the more popular constituency resolutions. However, it was perhaps the single most important development at the NRP’s Convention! (It really is a big deal!) Whilst this restriction applies only to the NRP’s candidate selections, it represents a first-step in rebalancing the constitutional relationship between the two governments. The Federal government has at least three compelling reasons to mirror this amendment at the federal level by including it on its agenda for constitutional reform. Here’s a brief sketch of these reasons…
1. It removes a damning conflict of interest
Whatever your view of the relationship between the NIA and the Federal government, it can hardly be disputed that they were established to focus on different things. A member of the NIA pursues, as a priority, matters of concern to Nevis, whilst a member of the Federal Government focuses on matters concerning the unitary St. Kitts and Nevis. Sometimes, these two interests converge, but many times, they conflict and compete. And in these moments of conflict and competition, it is crucial to have different people promoting and protecting these different interests. The dual role of the Deputy Premier Mark Brantley MP is illustrative of this conflict of interest. At the local level, Brantley is Minister of Tourism; at the federal level, he is Minister of Foreign Affairs and Aviation. These two ministries are very closely related, however (and this is where the conflict arises) the two islands run separate, and often competing, tourism products managed by separate tourism authorities. Yet, Brantley is the voice and face of Nevis’ tourism product, whilst at the same time, the voice and face of the Federation overseas. This duality renders him unsuitable to make unbiased decisions in matters which straddle both ministries, for example, air lift support to attract more direct flights to Nevis or diplomatic trips in which significant benefits accrue only or primarily to Nevis. In such matters, it is unclear whether Brantley acts on behalf of the Federal Government or the NIA.
2. It ensures accountability through the separation of powers
Many of us are already familiar with the principle of ‘separation of powers’: the vesting of certain government powers in different bodies and institutions. The whole purpose of this separation is twofold: first, it avoids the concentration of power in any one person or institution, as history has shown this to be the principal ingredient of an abuse of power; and second, it increases the possibility of robust accountability, as one institution can scrutinise and challenge the use of power of another. We talk about this principle primarily in horizontal terms, relating to the executive, the judicial and the legislative arms of government, but the principle equally applies vertically to the federal and local levels of government. In looking after the interests of Nevis, the NIA must be prepared to scrutinise and challenge decisions and actions of the Federal Government which are inconsistent with the interests of Nevis. At the same time, the Federal Government must be able to assure all citizens that its actions and decisions are in the best interest of the Federation as a whole. However, when a member of the NIA also serves as a Federal minister, this kind of public, inter-governmental accountability is unhinged and replaced by private, inter-party negotiations. Any notion of robust accountability soon evaporates. Take for example, the decision of the Federal Government to assist the NIA with budgetary support in the amount of $10 million. It was in the interest of the NIA members to argue for this manifesto promise to be fulfilled without delay. However, as these are federal dollars, it was in the interest of the Federal Government to have a parliamentary debate to assure the people of St. Kitts and Nevis that this measure was in fact in the best interest of the Federation. By now, we are all aware of how this ended: without a parliamentary debate, without federal accountability, the money was handed over to the NIA. It becomes a purely academic exercise now to determine whether Brantley and Premier Vance Amory MP took part in that decision as Federal ministers or as NIA members. What matters is that their ability to hold office in both governments harbours this growing accountability deficit.
3. It refocuses the NIA to be distinctly Nevisian
Of course, there are political advantages that a Nevisian political party can enjoy with its candidates having one foot in Charlestown and another in Church Street. In the case of the Concerned Citizens Movement (CCM), these benefits are significantly increased by the party’s contribution of a more-than-insignificant number of parliamentary seats to the Team Unity government. However, as the NRP recognises, that political expedience is unprincipled: it generates split loyalties, undermines local government, and in the grand scheme of things, is of little benefit to Nevis.
When a politician finds him/herself in such a dual position, both governments are unlikely to be served equally and fully by that one minister, not least because it is physically impossible or incredibly difficult. There is a real question to be asked of the quality of work a dual minister can truly produce, particularly where, as in the present case, that NIA minister holds a senior position or runs a significant ministry at the federal level. However, beyond the question of physical ability or possibility, there is an even bigger question of loyalty and priority to be answered. The frequent competition and conflict of the interests of these two governments force dual NIA politicians to have split loyalties. As the NRP leader Joseph Parry MP explained at the Convention, “[I]t is best for a Nevis Island Assembly member to dedicate their time and effort to local matters.”
“The government of Nevis… is securely locked up in Basseterre… The loyalty of our present Premier cannot be first to the people of Nevis… Vance Amory’s loyalty has first to be to Timothy Harris and the Cabinet of Basseterre, the Cabinet of St. Kitts [and Nevis].”
He called this a “fundamental point of government”, recalling the efforts of his party’s early leaders in establishing a government in Nevis, of Nevisians, solely and entirely for Nevisians.
Further, as much as I have avoided discussing the fact that both ministers currently receive two full salaries for what effectively are two part-time jobs, I can hardly complete the argument without mentioning it. It is a point Marcella Liburd MP has argued repeatedly. She is right, but the problem is deeper than the unfairness of the two salaries. Nevis is being short-changed, in more ways than one.
To wrap up…
For these three reasons, this first-step by the NRP should trigger a similar conversation at the federal level. Sure, Brantley might be reported as pointing out the “hypocrisy” of the NRP’s position today, citing that its own candidates have served in dual positions in the past. However, the nature of nation-building is forward-looking and progressive. We should always welcome a moment to question the way things have traditionally been done and ask whether we are being best served by continuing those practices. The NRP has had its moment of awakening; this important amendment is evidence.
Given Brantley’s antagonistic response, it is unlikely that the CCM will rush towards similar amendments to its constitution. This is where, I hope, the Federal Government will see an opportunity to take this up as a matter of federal constitutional reform. Mirroring the NRP’s amendment could remove this conflict of interest which continues to haunt dual ministers, redress the growing inter-governmental accountability deficit, and return the NIA to its original, Nevis-centric purpose.