COLUMN – Bolstering Barbadian democracy
The system of Government we negotiated at Independence has served us well.
One of the best features of that system has been the development of a strong two-party system, the bedrock of Barbados’ legendary political stability.
But it’s time to move on to make our governance more accountable and transparent and, most of all, our democracy more participatory.
We might start by reforming our electoral system, without destroying our two-party system.
One way of doing that might be a sensible compromise between the “first-past-the-post” system which we currently have, and proportional representation, widely used throughout the world.
The compromise is known as “mixed-member proportional representation” or sometimes as the “additional member system”, used by Germany and New Zealand among other countries. This combines single-member constituency voting with proportional representation voting. Usually half of the members of the legislature are elected in single-member constituencies by a simple majority. The other half are elected by a party list vote and added on to the constituency members so that each party has its appropriate share of seats in the legislature.
How would this work in Barbados?
One possible scenario: first of all, we abolish the Senate (waste of time and money) and have a unicameral legislature of 50 seats (one less than the present set-up).
Thirty of the seats would be elected in single-member constituencies, and 20 would be allocated according to the party preference expressed by the voter. So, in an election people would cast two votes on a double ballot.
First, on the left side of the ballot (the constituency representative portion), they would vote for their single-member constituency candidate (same 30 constituencies). The candidate with the most votes wins and would represent the constituency. Thus 30 seats would be allocated on the first-past-the-post system.
On the right side of the ballot (the party list portion), electors would vote for a party contesting the election and the other 20 seats in Parliament would be allocated so as to make the total seats won by each party equal to its percentage share of the popular vote.
So let’s take a hypothetical election in which three parties contest the election: the BLP, the DLP and the XYZ. The BLP wins 51 per cent of the party preference vote, the DLP wins 46 per cent, and the XYZ wins three per cent. Each party is entitled to its percentage share of the 50 seats: BLP, 26; DLP, 23; and XYZ, 1.
And let’s suppose the BLP wins 16 of the 30 constituencies; the DLP, 14; and the XYZ, 0. The 20 party list seats would then be allocated: ten to the BLP to bring its total seats to 26, nine to the DLP to bring its total seats to 23, and one to the XYZ .
We might also decide to enlarge the unicameral Parliament by having an additional ten seats allocated to civil society/community interests appointed by the president. (Yes, we would, after a referendum, switch to a ceremonial Barbadian Head of State, although this is more symbolic than anything else.)
The ten civil society representatives, appointed for fixed terms, would have the right to speak but not to vote. Civil society representation would facilitate popular input into proposed legislation before it becomes law.
How about two-term limits for the Prime Minister? After two terms in office, anyone gets to feel he or she is destined to rule forever: arrogance and disrespect.
We also desperately need campaign finance reform.
But most of all we need reforms that would strengthen participatory democracy.
Fifty years ago the best brains in Barbados were in Government (both at the political and bureaucratic level). That’s no longer so. Now Barbados has a well-developed, highly educated civil society that is teeming with ideas and likely solutions to the countless challenges facing the country. Moreover the members of that civil society are keen to participate in the policymaking process. Right now there’s a palpable sense of frustration in Barbados over the fact that apparently neither the political directorate nor the bureaucracy has the slightest interest in hearing from the people. And there is no institutional way to tap the ingenuity of civil society.
We can no longer confine popular political participation to casting a ballot every four or five years. We must strengthen our representative democracy with greater direct democracy, by creating institutional mechanisms for continuous direct popular participation in governance.
Here are some reforms that might achieve that objective.
The 1996-1998 Constitution Review Commission, chaired by Sir Henry Forde, QC, recommended that citizens should be given the right to propose legislative measures, which, if they attracted enough support by way of signatures, would be placed on the ballot at a general election and, if approved, would have to be debated and voted on, though not necessarily approved, by Parliament. This would preserve the fundamental authority of Parliament while giving citizens some law-making power.
What about the Ombudsman? Never heard of it? A good idea that never worked out. Either get rid of it or give it teeth.
There are other mechanisms of direct democracy like crowdsourcing (seeking online suggestions from citizens), citizens’ charters and so on.
Citizens who have submitted applications for anything or who are entitled to payment should have the right to know the precise stage their application has reached and the specific reasons for any delay. This would entail that the procedures and timelines for processing an application or payment be available online.
We have a unique organization in Barbados: the Social Partnership. Let’s make it work for us.
The Social Partnership was an original experiment in participatory governance whereby the trade unions and the business community gained a direct role in shaping broad economic policies. It has been a useful instrument for bringing stability to our economy, but it is too formal, concerned solely with broad economic parameters, and not geared to action. It should be expanded to include other elements of civil society, and should be mandated to set up task forces to achieve specific ends.
(Peter Laurie, a former Barbados diplomat, is a noted social commentator.)