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Some Myths of Prime Ministerial Power - October 31, 2005

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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 that exist.

Let me share three examples with you to demonstrate the popular perception that a Prime Minister can do anything.


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.


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 favour.

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!


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 government?

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 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.


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 Constitution.

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.


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 citizens.

So until next week, be of good cheer, God bless and don’t forget never, never give in to the criminals!



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