Hung Parliament

For good or ill, elections are over, but during the course of the election night count one topic appeared to pique the nation’s interest. What would happen if there was a 15-15 split in the division of the seats in Parliament between the two main parties, otherwise known as a hung Parliament?

I profess no expertise in this matter and in fact no lawyer should hold themselves out to be a constitutional expert or guru (that’s actually prohibited by the Legal Profession Act and the Code of Ethics) but I will attempt to examine this question.

There are three branches of government, Legislative, Executive and Judiciary. By virtue of section 63 of the Constitution “the executive authority of Barbados is vested in Her Majesty” the Queen who may exercise her powers through the Governor-General. The rest of the executive branch is comprised mainly of Cabinet consisting of a Prime Minister and not less than five other Ministers.

Section 65 of the Constitution provides that: “Whenever the Governor-General has occasion to appoint a Prime Minister he shall, acting in his discretion, appoint the member of the House of Assembly who, in his judgment, is best able to command the confidence of a majority of the members of that House.”

Sounds simple enough but bear in mind throughout this discussion that our system of Parliamentary democracy is based on the Westminster style of government adopted from England. England itself has no written constitution and therefore our very sparse constitutional provisions are underpinned by a system of unwritten conventions dating back centuries and which have come to be accepted as gospel.

Our Constitution, modelled as it is, provides absolutely no guidance and in fact makes no reference to the possibility of a hung Parliament even by any other name.

After Parliament’s dissolution following the Prime Minister’s decision to call a general election, the sitting Prime Minister would have continued to hold the reins of government and convention accepts that this is merely a caretaker government and no controversial decisions will be made until the post-election majority government is formed.

Where a hung Parliament results the incumbent prime minister has first option to try to achieve a majority to conform to the dictates of the Constitution. In the case of Barbados where there are no independent members of Parliament or third parties who could join the government benches to form a coalition, the Prime Minister would have been faced with wooing someone to cross the floor of the House a la Clyde Mascoll in 2006, which as options go would most likely be a non-starter. Then of course we must factor in that the Speaker of the House is appointed from the Government benches.

By convention, if the incumbent prime minister proves unable to form an administration he has the option of resigning at which time the leader of the largest opposition party will be invited to form a government. If all else fails then another general election may be called which would hopefully produce a clear majority in the House.

By way of illustration, in February 1974 where the general election in Britain produced such a calamitous result, the incumbent Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, continued in his post and attempted to form a coalition, when this proved untenable, he resigned and Harold Wilson the leader of the next largest political party was invited by Her Majesty to form the government. Wilson called a general election eight months later and secured his majority.

This is not a legal opinion but on the upside one hopes that such a narrow majority in the House of Assembly along with some new blood will improve the debate on the passing of future legislation without the concerns of the public being glossed over simply because the Government has a large enough majority.

Incidentally, a two-thirds majority is required for amending the Constitutional provisions relating to citizenship, fundamental rights and freedoms, the court system, the Public Service, Finance and a few others. On this at least there will be no willy-nilly hacking to pieces of the document which holds the fabric of our society together to serve particular political ends — not for the next five years at least.

The Hansard Society of the UK has produced an essay titled Forming a coalition or a minority government in the event of a hung Parliament by Robert Blackburn et al which presents an informative read for those who remain interested.

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