My Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines a Backbencher as: ‘An ordinary member of the House of Commons in the British Parliament who does not hold office and occupies the back benches.’
Dr Kenny D. Anthony fits the definition to-the-letter – except that Back-benchers remain on the back-burner of Caribbean politics, if only because almost every elected MP on a winning team expects to be expected to expect to become a cabinet minister.
The Saint Lucia parliament is a bequeathed carbon-copy of the UK’s where, 44 years after Independence, newly-elected MPs still have to swear allegiance to the King (or Queen) of England, thanks to the island’s membership of the global Commonwealth of former British colonies.
But Caribbean backbenchers have to awkwardly share the frontline around the same horseshoe table as front-bench colleague with ministerial titles, in Saint Lucia’s case Dr Anthony sitting one-before-the-last in the government’s parliamentary lineup, one seat away from his successor and current Opposition Leader Allen Chastanet.
But seating discomfort aside, if anyone didn’t understand a backbencher’s role, Dr Anthony’s presentation during the January 28 debate on making the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) the island’s final Court of Appeal was the most-recent example.
Likewise, his later contribution to last week’s passage of parliamentary legislation to strengthen the hands of the police in addressing crime hotspots, in this case Vieux Fort, where he’d also earlier complained, in parliament, about the seeming unconcern about the fact that the court system was suspended indefinitely in the southern town he’s represented since 1997.
At last Monday’s sitting, Dr Anthony poured freezing-cold water over the heated insistence by ex-Prime Minister Chastanet that Prime Minister Philip J. Pierre, should have declared a State of Emergency instead of the new legislation localizing police crime-prevention efforts to Vieux Fort, pointing to the common-sense fact that such would have invited economically-crippling travel restrictions against the island.
Again, the Backbencher took a frontal role in defending and explaining the legal, judicial and all-round correctness of PM Pierre’s decision to go the way of introducing the Suppression of Escalated Crime Police Powers Bill, which will require the regional and police presence only in areas thereafter deemed to be experiencing escalated crime.
Unfortunately, however, the former Head of the University of the West Indies (The UWI) law faculty in Barbados — who also served as CARICOM’s Counsel General (Chief lawyer) at the Georgetown Secretariat, whose students include a former CARICOM Prime Minister and whose wife also headed UWI law faculties in Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago and served on the Inter-American Commission of Jurists – still faces a very steep uphill climb to get colleague MPs right around the horseshoe table — and Saint Lucians generally — to easily understand or fully accept his (Backbencher) role.
But try as anyone may, he’s unlikely to offer and excuse or apology for being who he’s been in the House of Assembly since 2016.
His two-hour February 28 contribution to the debate on the amendment to the Constitution for the next and final step in the island’s CCJ journey was Kenny at his best, his presentation considered a public lecture delivered in and to the court of public opinion.
He took viewers at home and abroad through the 122-year Caribbean journey to the CCJ.
And that was another memorable day for Dr Anthony, as it was only the second time Saint Lucia’s Constitution was being amended – and both involved him, though over four decades apart.
When appointed as the new Labour Party Government’s Advisor on Education in 1979, he was too young (at 28) to qualify as the law required that he be 31, leading to the first amendment (which was reduced to 21 long after he got to 31).
This second time, he was associated with the draft of the original CCJ law while at CARICOM.
The Backbencher noted, however, that John and Joan Public still need to know more about the benefits of making the CCJ the island’s final appellate court; and likewise, his reservations and differences of opinion with CCJ judges on some issues.
The ex-PM chided what he said was the British Privy Council’s “ideological position” on Capital Punishment in former British colonies; and he upbraided fellow MPs, lawyers, judicial officers “who know better”, but still underrate the positive historical contributions of Caribbean jurors to justice worldwide — and particularly in Africa after Independence in the mid-20th Century.
The former PM noted the current Opposition Leader chose to remain foul of the constitution for five years while in office as PM by refusing to appoint a Deputy Speaker of the House, but is calling on the current administration to call an unnecessary referendum on the CCJ issue despite having more than a two-thirds parliamentary majority.
Waxing warmly on that memorable Monday, Dr Anthony was the perfect Backbencher in action.
He said he was proud to have attended the UWI and Universities in the UK and asserted that he and most of his regional peers of similar standing can match any Privy Council judge.
The Backbencher in him made Dr Anthony say he didn’t really care much about how any of his parliamentary colleagues felt about his presentation that day, as he was at perfect peace with himself serving constituents, country and people the best he could.
Like he’d learned (as a young revolutionary thinker, radical teacher and trade unionist who also become a Prime Minister), Dr Anthony was always true to himself and the causes he adopted — and true to everyone else.
Whether belching or bawling from his back-bench position on the Government side’s parliamentary frontline, Dr Anthony’s role as a Caribbean Backbencher will attract as much study in the future as the threads of his three tenures at the summit of Saint Lucia’s highest national political mountaintop.
And he’ll continue to so bat and bowl, until he decides to declare — or simply retire.