. . . What watchful eye there be?
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on governments would be necessary.
In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself. (James Madison in Founding Father Of The US Constitution.)
Executive legislative relations are key ways in which governmental power is normally considered in modern democracies. And, as I indicated recently, under Westminster arrangements, the legislative branch of government which is supposed to check the executive finds itself in a weakened position, given the domination of the legislature by the winning political party, the fusion of power and the tendency of our electoral system to produce lopsided parliaments, thus limiting both its actual independence and the capacity of the opposition to engage in effective scrutiny.
We are aware that with Westminster political systems, the party winning the elections, through securing victory at the constituency level, forms the government which then engages in the formulation of policy and legislation. We have experienced occasions where the opposition was absent from Parliament, given its slaughter at the constituency level by the winning political party, a feat which is only possible under the plurality system of voting in use in all Commonwealth Caribbean countries, except Guyana.
Grenada which has experienced this phenomenon on two occasions is presently in the process of correcting this historical and systemic possibility by undertaking an amendment to the constitution to ensure there is always an opposition in Parliament. This will be achieved not through a desirable change of the electoral system, but by securing the position of the leader of the opposition.
While the development in Grenada is a positive one, much more can be achieved to strengthen the business of Parliament by reforming the electoral system to reflect the actual strength of the various interests in society. Indeed Vincent Beache, leader of the opposition in St Vincent and the Grenadines in 1989, when faced with a similar situation complained that essentially, the government is operating more by executive decree, rather than through the legislature.
Of course, in small parliaments like ours, it is not really possible to have a proper separation of powers. In practice, the executive is the legislature in the sense that because they are in a majority they can put anything through the House. Even so, at least you can debate it there and the public can hear it.
While sceptics are wary of proportional representation, we can in fact introduce the mixed member system which has found increasing favour in a number of countries.
Thus, though Grenada fell far short of this noble reform, under bill No. 7 –– Ensuring A Leader Of The Opposition (Amendment) Act, 2015, the governor general is empowered to appoint a leader of the opposition under circumstances where all the members of the House of Representatives are members of the political party that forms the government, and where there is no member crossing the floor from the government benches to become an opposition member.
Under the proposed change, the governor general acting in his/her own deliberate judgement can appoint a member of the political party that obtained the second highest number of votes in the most recent general election.
As Westminster parliaments are normally bicameral (though in several jurisdictions, for example, St Kitts-Nevis and St Vincent and The Grenadines, there is a unicameral chamber), it is the responsibility of the two chambers of the legislative branch to scrutinize and criticize. The extent to which this is possible is generally disputed, given the clear control the prime minister and therefore the government have on both the elected House of Assembly and the appointed Senate.
Understandably, the parliamentary opposition generally pursues a “strictly competitive” approach. For to do otherwise would be an endorsement of the ruling party and therefore suicidal to the election prospects of the opposition. So in the more mature Caribbean democracies where there is a balancing of forces and or experienced and capable opposition parliamentarians, it ought to be anticipated that parliamentary debates will be heated and robust even while having little expectation of impacting legislation, far less of defeating the government, except under highly unusual circumstances.
Scholars and political activists overwhelmingly accept that these occasions provide Parliament and most certainly the opposition with the opportunity to engage in scrutinizing and questioning government action. Such debate is critical especially in the context of a no-confidence motion as it can be used as a forum to provide the electorate with crucial information
on government policies, performances and limitations.
So any attempt on the part of the government to limit the ability of the opposition to engage in such activities and where there is the exclusion of the opposition, is antithetical to democracy and good governance.
So in early May we witnessed a marathon session by our Leader of the Opposition on the no-confidence motion. While some have criticized the length of time taken by Mia Mottley to do so, it is a welcome sign as the Government willingly facilitatedthis possibility.
Most persons would agree that the Opposition under normal circumstances is generally impotent (except through the use of the PAC). Such an assessment therefore opens the door to the recommendation that the inequality between Government and Opposition requires attention if the latter is to fulfil its responsibility. How best to do so is hotly contested and ranges from the adoption of the American-style presidential democracy –– which not only fixes the term of office of all holders, but is also marked by a legislative branch which is defined by perfect symmetry, unlike the Westminster parliamentary system, to simply changing the method of selection of the senate in the region.
Equally critical to understanding the importance of Parliament to the integrity of the system is the fact it is the only body constitutionally empowered to pass laws. Consequently, constitutionally, it is Parliament that can provide for the establishment of an appropriate legislative framework which will limit the possibility of corruption and improve integrity in government and the wider society. However we know that politically much of this is achieved by the executive branch, given the predominance of that branch over the legislative body.
What every democratic society should aim for is a Parliament that is part of the solution. That is why we must remain vigilant, listening carefully to the utterances and watching the actions of our parliamentarians. They reveal quite a lot about intent.
As former Chief Justice and Attorney General of Barbados Sir David Simmons noted when he addressed a conference organized by Transparency International in Trinidad and Tobago in 2014, “. . . if there is the political will, a country can seek to control corruption by the enactment of appropriate legislation. Defeatist attitudes of laissez-faire and complacency are contrary to the public interest. The law must seek to prescribe the minimum content of appropriate political conduct to ensure good governance in the best interests of the people”.
In Britain, the use of question time for both the prime minister and individual minsters is also a potent tool for effecting parliamentary accountability. Most authorities have also agreed it is important for Parliament to promote an amicable relationship with the media, not to speak of the access to information. But questions arise as to whether Westminster parliaments
in the Commonwealth Caribbean are capable of fulfilling these noble ambitions.
I most certainly do not contend that corruption starts and ends with Parliament. Indeed no! That would clearly be insane. And, as Jeremy Pope himself does concede, it rarely is a lack of anti-corruption legislation that limits efforts by governments to rein in corruption. But Pope is adamant it is often the weaknesses of these efforts coupled with the lack of implementation of laws that permit corruption to flourish.
Consequently, Pope proposed that to be effective, in sponsoring legislation, Parliament must ensure it emphasizes human rights standards, and reduce areas of discretion of officials both in the private and public sector.
At the end of the day, it is necessary for the opposition to pay careful attention to governmental action and behaviour. But apparently some members of the ruling political party whether parliamentary or extra parliamentary think otherwise. So what passes in every other jurisdiction as necessary is seen as noise making. Such statements expose the barren nature of the internalization of the often abused word “democracy”!
So it was pleasing to hear the Leader of the Opposition making “noises” on Thursday, May 19, and promising to scrutinize every policy, every bill, and every action of the Government. While it should make for interesting time for us, the Opposition will be engaging in nothing else but its parliamentary business.
Most people do not understand the complicated machinery of the government. They do not realize that every citizen silently but none the less certainly sustains the government of the day in ways of which he has no knowledge. Every citizen therefore renders himself responsible for every act of his government. And it is quite proper to support it so long as the actions of the government are bearable. But when they hurt him and his nation, it becomes his duty to withdraw his support.
–– Mahatma Gandhi
(Cynthia Barrow-Giles is a senior lecture in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus.)