Some Myths of Prime Ministerial Power
Greetings once again, citizens of Saint Lucia. I hope you had a great weekend,
and a fabulous Jounen Kweyol.
I once told you that on the days when I see members of the public, I am brought
face to face with the many problems encountered by our citizens. Sometimes, the
experience can be wrenching. There are occasions when it is impossible to reach
out simply because existing laws and Government procedures do not permit the
help, assistance or support the citizens require.
I have met all kinds individuals. I have met those who want me to “arrange”
scholarships for them. I have met those who seek my help to get jobs. I have met
those who want me to pay court fines, to assist them in paying child maintenance
and in waiving hospital fees. I have met those who want help to repair or build
a house. I have met those who want me to waive taxes, and even reverse decisions
of the courts and determine rights over property. You name it, and I can share
my experience with you.
In many of these encounters, I am often struck by the fact that many citizens
simply believe that the Prime Minister can do anything, irrespective of the laws
Let me share three examples with you to demonstrate the popular perception that
a Prime Minister can do anything.
ALL POWERFUL IN CUSTOMS?
A trader once approached me to waive duties imposed by Custom Officials at a
port of entry. She explained that on a trip to Martinique, she purchased
merchandise which she intended to sell on the local market.
However, she complained that she could not pay the duties charged on the
commodities. She alleged that a Customs Officer told her that the Prime Minister
imposed the duties so she should go to him to get them waived. It did not matter
that the duties and charges in question were in existence long before I became
Prime Minister. I explained to her that there were set rules, procedures and
guidelines governing the operations of the Custom’s Department and so I could
not violate these rules. To that she remarked, “you are the Prime Minister, you
can do anything.” I tried to reason with her, “look, if I break the law just to
please you then no one will have respect for the law or Custom Officers.” She
refused to accept my reasoning. My explanation could not register.
It did not matter to her that interference in the decisions of Customs Officials
would undermine the neutrality and remove the impartiality necessary for
fairness in the operations of the Customs Department.
INTERVENTION IN PROPERTY DISPUTES
Likewise, many of our citizens believe that the Prime Minister has the power to
intervene in land disputes and resolve them irrespective of their origins. I
have been asked to intervene in disputes concerning family land, in issues of
inheritance of property. I have been invited to pronounce on land matters where
ownership and other rights in land are in dispute. In all of these instances,
citizens do not come for advice but simply to invite me to declare their rights,
as if I had such power.
This problem is really very deep. Some believe that even if there is a court
judgment on such matters, I have the power and authority to overturn the court’s
judgment. Others believe that even if the matter is yet to be settled and is
before a court of law, I can preempt the courts and provide a ruling in their
I have a great challenge to explain that the powers of the Prime Minister do not
extend to overriding the decisions of the courts. I have pointed out that the
court’s function is to interpret the law and ensure that justice is done. As a
result it is only the courts which can determine right and wrong in instances of
disputes involving land. It is not the place of the Prime Minister to condemn
the judgments of the courts or the magistrates. Moreover, if politicians had to
resolve land disputes, there would, in effect, be no need for independent
courts. Sometimes, it is like talking Greek!
POWER OVER TAXATION
Take another example. Large sections of the public believe that the Prime
Minister has power and control over matters of taxation. There are some
individuals who do not pay their taxes to the Inland Revenue Department.
However, when they are assessed, some approach me to request that I waive the
taxes owed to the Inland Revenue Department. There are also those who are
convinced that the Prime Minister can intervene to have the interest on unpaid
taxes waived, reduced or cancelled altogether.
What do you really think has created in the minds of the citizens that the Prime
Minister is all-powerful? Why is it that so many believe that he is the law or
operates above the law? Why too, so many believe that he can do any and
everything? Can a Prime Minister really do as he pleases? Is he accountable to
no one? Have we failed to explain our Constitution, our laws, our system of
Many of our citizens simply do not understand how our system of government
works. Many of our citizens are equally unclear about the powers which the Prime
Minister and the other branches of government possess under the Constitution.
THE PRIME MINISTER IS NEITHER THE LAW NOR IS HE ABOVE THE LAW
The enactment of laws is the function of the Parliament of Saint Lucia and not
the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is subject to the law just like any other
citizen. If he breaks or transgresses the law, he too is liable to face the full
sanction of the law. So too are his cabinet colleagues. The law is the law and
no citizen, irrespective of profession, colour, creed or class is or ought to be
above the law. No one is beyond the reach of the law.
If the Prime Minister operates in a manner that places him above the law, it
would mean that he is accountable to no one. A lack of accountability on the
part of the Prime Minister would in effect lead to a situation where accountable
government is impossible. In such a case the Prime Minister would be free to
flaunt the law as he pleases. Where accountable government does not exist, then
the principles of good governance flounder.
SEPARATION OF POWERS – A CHECK ON PRIME MINISTERIAL POWER
This is precisely why our political system operates the way it does. In order to
prevent the abuse of power, our political system was designed to prevent too
much power from being concentrated in the hands of any one individual or office.
For this reason the functions of government are shared between three main
branches of government – the executive, the legislature and judiciary. This is
what is referred to as a separation of powers. The powers and functions of the
various branches of government are prescribed by law and outlined in the
The executive comprises of the Prime Minister and Cabinet of Ministers and the
Public Service. The Legislature comprises all the elected members of Parliament
and senators appointed by the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and the
Governor General. And the judiciary comprises the court system, the magistrates’
courts and the Supreme Court. In turn, the Supreme Court is made up of the High
Court and the Court of Appeal.
These three branches of government share power as well as state authority in
carrying out certain functions. So in essence they serve as a check on each
other. The checks are necessary to ensure that none of these organs becomes too
powerful and a law unto itself. For example in our system of government, the
judiciary is independent and operates free from intervention from the executive
and the legislature. This is important if the judiciary is to interpret the law
on the one hand and on the other hand, to ensure that there is justice.
The idea of a separation of power between the various branches of government
serves another important function – the preservation of our democratic
traditions. Without adherence to the principles of separation of powers it is
possible to have government by one individual or a dictatorship. So the idea of
separation of powers is key in upholding the ideals of governance, as well as
accountable and transparent government.
ASK A SIMPLE QUESTION
So there are real limitations on what a Prime Minister can and cannot do.
Bear this in mind when next you come to visit and ask my help. Ask yourself a
simple question: Does the Prime Minister really have the power, authority and
influence to resolve my problems?
Just remember that although the Prime Minister enjoys certain powers, he does
not have the power to do as he pleases in all matters. He operates within the
confines of the law and is subject to the sanctions of the law, just like other
So until next week, be of good cheer, God bless and don’t forget never, never
give in to the criminals!