By RICARDO WELLS
Tribune Staff Reporter
ATTORNEY General Carl Bethel has defended the firings of two parliamentary secretaries and one board chairman this week by Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis, however he insisted “reconciliation” remains the focus.
While giving a speech during the Senate’s budget debate yesterday, Mr Bethel, the leader of government business in the Senate, implored people who have taken issue with the prime minister’s decision to review the Westminster parliamentary system.
While he admitted that there are some “peculiar” factors built into the system, he contended the rules must be followed.
Golden Isles MP Vaughn Miller, Bain and Grants Town MP Travis Robinson and Pineridge MP Frederick McAlpine were all fired on Tuesday from their appointed posts, a day after breaking ranks from their party and voting against an increase in value added tax (VAT).
Mr Miller, former parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Social Services, and Mr Robinson, former parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Tourism, were cited for breach of the Manual of Cabinet and Ministry Procedure. Mr McAlpine, former chairman of the Hotel Corporation, also had his post given to him by Dr Minnis stripped.
“So this is a system that has its own peculiar rules,” Mr Bethel said. “We know not only are they peculiar, they are well established, they are almost inflexible. These rules are clear, well-known to all who enter in the political arena.”
He continued: “Because of the special constitutional status and from the very inception of it, parliamentary secretaries . . . had to bear the same duties as a Cabinet minister. And the manual of Cabinet ministries clearly sets out the rules which guides every parliamentary secretary and Cabinet ministers.
“And not only is a parliamentary secretary precluded from voting against the government, he is even precluded from speaking out against any government measure.
“He is a member of the government. Rules are irrespective of person,” Mr Bethel said.
“Just because a person may become a sympathetic figure or even a beloved figure, there can be no exemption on the rules. The rules are the rules.
“If you do not have a system of rules, you have chaos,” he added.
“You don’t have the right of free speech that every MP generally has, as parliamentary secretary. Your voice is your own as a member of Parliament. You are elected by your constituents to represent them on the floor of the House of Assembly and say whatever the Lord lay on your breast to say, but your vote is mortgaged to the governing party. The party on whose ticket you (were) elected. If the whip is on, you must vote according to the whip.”
He added: “If the government determines that there is a question, that is a question that is properly a question of conscience and says, ‘The whip is not on, everybody may vote the way they wish to, vote according to their conscience.’
“Those are the principles and those are the rules and I explained that to my colleagues.”
Mr Bethel added: “These are not Bahamian rules, there are rules that are intrinsic to the parliamentary system of governance. This is what makes the parliamentary system, quite frankly, far more efficient as a system of governance than the biggest competitor around – the congressional system.”
Directly addressing calls from some for the Bahamas to move away from the Westminster system, he added: “Where should we go?”
Of the congressional system, he noted the cost of managing day-to-day operations and the constant fear of necessary actions being slowed due to a lack of political will, using incidents from American history as examples.
“If the House (Congress) decides it don’t like the Senate, or none like the (US) president, nobody does anything,” Mr Bethel said. “We saw that for eight years with President Obama where the system was able to be used to totally frustrate the will of the people by persons in the congressional system.
“Is that what the Bahamians wish?”
He also presented the option of a dictatorship, adding: “And none of us would like that. None of us want to follow a communist system where one single party makes up the executive.”
Mr Bethel said while issues surrounding Tuesday’s firings seem extreme and controversial, he was of the view the FNM could resolve the issues and move forward.
“The FNM has the distinct track record,” he said.
Mr Bethel highlighted several cases of former FNM parliamentarians, Cabinet members and senators who, at some point, dissented against the party.
He said while the party has a record of being stern and respect for rules, it also has a record of reconciliation.
He said the party intends to continue with reconciliation and forward progress.