Empowering the backbench

EVERSLEY FilesOur system of Government, based on the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy, assigns a pre-eminent role to the Member of Parliament in relation to other high-profile and seemingly more glamorous positions, specifically Prime Minister and Cabinet minister, that also derive their legitimacy from Parliament.

The intent of this feature of our governance, as established in the 1966 Independence Constitution, is to underscore the supremacy of Parliament, or more specifically the elected House of Assembly, as truly representative of the will of the people as reflected in the outcome of the most recent general election.   

Mostly unfamiliar with the provisions of the Constitution, the average Barbadian tends to assign pre-eminence instead to the Prime Minister and other Cabinet ministers. In their estimation, a Government backbencher or Opposition MP, except for the Leader of the Opposition, are positions of diminished importance and influence, even though they are not.

From time to time, backbenchers too have conveyed this impression, whether by expressing disappointment after being overlooked for a Cabinet position following a general election, or by complaining about the difficulty getting things done
in their constituencies if support from the relevant minister is not forthcoming.

Despite the perception of powerlessness, backbench MPs do wield considerable power. The problem, however, is that, historically, it seems they do not know how to effectively use this power to their advantage. The more glamourous and seemingly more powerful positions –– none so more than Prime Minister –– are dependent on the support of the backbench where the vote in some instances can make the difference between success and failure.

The supremacy of the role of MP lies in the fact that it is the basis of other key positions. To become eligible for appointment as Prime Minister, for example, an aspirant must first become an MP by winning a seat in the House of Assembly. The next step, having done so, is to secure the support of an outright majority of fellow MPs who will inform the Governor General of their choice, so that the appointment can be made.

Securing such support is usually straightforward. The prime ministerial candidate is always the leader of the political party which wins an outright majority of seats in a general election. The Barbados Constitution, however, does not recognize political parties as key actors in our system of Government. It recognizes the role of the respective MPs and their independence.

Whether on the Government or Opposition side, MPs or private members, as they are also called, have equal status.  Prime Ministers and Cabinet ministers are not inherently superior, even though some have tended over the years to behave so occasionally. In fact, how can they be when their ability to remain in office depends on retaining the support of the backbench?

Chapter 4: 64 (2) of the Constitution establishes the authority of Parliament over the Cabinet, which is the executive arm of Government. It says: “The Cabinet shall be the principal instrument of policy and shall be charged with the general direction and control of the Government of Barbados and shall be collectively responsible therefore to Parliament.”

This provision implicitly asserts the ultimate power of backbench MPs who, acting collectively, can make or break a Government. Their constitutional role is to ensure Cabinet accountability and keep the executive on its toes. Can we say that we are generally satisfied with how backbench MPs are discharging this responsibility on behalf of the people?

Over the years, the paramountcy of our Parliament seems to have diminished somewhat with a gradual shift away from parliamentary to prime ministerial Government. As a result, it seems that Parliament today serves more to rubberstamp the agenda of the Cabinet than to ensure accountability.

The strong influence of political parties has diminished the independence of backbench MPs, especially on the Government side, by ensuring that they generally toe the line. Parliamentary group meetings of the ruling party usually take place before each sitting of the House of Assembly and serve to coordinate strategy for debates. The same applies in the case of the Opposition.

Prime ministerial government suggests paramountcy of the interests of the ruling party. Parliamentary Government, on the other hand, is about paramountcy of the people’s interests. Meaningful reform of our governance model, which is long overdue, must give priority to reasserting the supremacy of Parliament and the role of backbench MPs as representatives of the people.

As the Constitution does not recognize political parties, backbenchers have a unique opportunity to create meaning and relevance in terms of how they execute their role. In the context of Barbados today, a golden opportunity exists for them to serve as a catalysts of reform. They can do so, for example, by exercising their right to bring more private members bills with the aim of influencing public policy.

They can also be innovative in their approach to representing their constituencies. As I see it, the role of a backbench MP today should extend way beyond making representation for roads, street lights, helping persons find jobs and other mundane tasks. That approach sufficed many decades ago when life in Barbados was pretty straightforward and challenges were not as complex.

Most importantly, MPs today should have a vision for their constituencies and a plan for bringing it to fruition. For example, MPs should assume a frontline role in attracting investments to their constituencies instead of leaving it to Government.  When I was asked some years ago to consider being a candidate for a Christ Church constituency, I conceptualized a novel approach to parliamentary representation.

It focused on building an effective partnership with the people to advance their interests. The centerpiece was to be a Council of Constituency Advisors, comprising various interests from across the constituency. Its purpose was to assist me, in the event I was elected, in determining development priorities which I would present to Government and lobby for support.

My plan also included the establishment of a Development Foundation to source funding and other resources to support the needy, provide scholarships to young people, grants for the development of micro-enterprises, and so on. I had also intended to introduce an annual constituency conference where I would report on achievements during the previous year and outline priorities for the coming year.

The job of a backbench MP can be an exciting and fulfilling experience that can make a real difference at both the constituency and national levels. The onus, however, is on the office holder to make it so.

(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist. Email: reudon@gmail.com)

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