Considering ‘democratic’ reforms

“There must be the appropriate checks and balances between the Parliament and the Executive. We must reform our Parliament to better serve the needs of our people. … There is a cost to democracy and the State must accept this reality if we are to protect the will of the majority from the influence of the few and the powerful.”. –  Barbados Labour Party, 2016: ‘Our Covenant of Hope’

The word ‘democracy’ has its etymology in the Greek language with ‘demokratia’ meaning ‘the political power of the ordinary people’ within a given polity. It is not unusual to hear people express the idealistic view that under a democratic system, it is the people who possess the ultimate power. This obviously will depend on who are the people, and under what specific conditions can the power be utilized.

Barbados is operating under ‘majoritarian’ and ‘representative’ democracy born out of the touted Westminster model. An ideal democracy would mean that ordinary people get to participate in making the decisions that affect their lives. Democracy would trigger more participatory mechanisms, and less alienating institutional tools. Predictably, political parties in Barbados have fed the population a diet purporting that democracy in Barbados is well established with the Barbados Parliament in place since 1639.

However, the boast of democratic longevity in Barbados is a ‘fiction’. This concept of the Westminster model shifted from ‘adoption’ without appropriate ‘adaptation’ to Barbados’ peculiarities. In this majoritarian system, Barbadians are questioning the role of the representative vis-à-vis minorities and vice versa. The question is whether this majoritarian and representative democracy is meeting the overall expectations of Barbadians.

Arend Lijphart argues that in a majoritarian, Westminster-style democracy, power is concentrated in the hands of the majority. Majoritarian democracy has the following institutional characteristics:

·  one-party majority cabinets; meaning, the concentration of power in one-party executive arms of government

·  executive dominance over the legislature

·  majoritarian and disproportional electoral rules underpinning a two-party system, with an associated winner-takes-all approach to government formation and maintenance

·  pluralist interest group systems with free-for-all competition among groups with these factors all contributing to an adversarial political culture.

There are areas of deficiency relating to the role and tenure of elected representatives. Indeed, the electorate’s ability to have a direct and continuing relationship with representatives beyond the periodic ballot box is receiving greater credence given the state of affairs occurring within the last decade. Former Prime Minister, Sir Lloyd Erskine Sandiford, has contended that: “Democracy in Barbados cannot and must not mean a mere moment in a polling station once every five years. Our citizens must, from day to day and from week to week, receive facts, opinions, comment and interpretation of public affairs and must also be encouraged to express their opinions. That is what participatory democracy is all about.”

Clearly, a responsive legislature that consistently grounds decisions in the public good is necessary. Currently, the legislature does not placate the electorate’s objection of positioning party over people. There is evidence of selfish inclination whenever unadulterated party loyalty persists.  Patterns of partisan behaviour have led to public disagreement with the policy directions being pushed by a domineering executive branch. Hence, both majority and minority interests tend to suffer at the hands of the elected when voices are stifled and prejudices dictate the choices.

Minority interests are subsumed below the tyranny of the majority, and mechanisms such as the Public Accounts Committee are neutered due to interpretations of procedure and intent. It must be re-emphasized that elected representatives continue to grow unpopular with the dominance of the executive over the legislature. With the mangling of national issues, no confidence motions perceivably falter, not for lack of cogent arguments or weakness in the representatives, but because of numerical strength.

Majority representatives almost always prevail over minority representatives. Barbados does not have an engrained culture wherein the executive members are contented to resign themselves to the legislature if malady strikes in the executive. To that end, matters of national interest have become problematic with the farcical circumventing of Westminster’s built-in checks and balances. Since 2008, there are louder calls for the buzzwords of transparency and accountability to obtain in practice at the sites of legislature and government. The contention is that parliamentary scrutiny urgently needs to be vastly improved, perhaps with an added dimension of freedom.

There is the lack of backbench scolding or exposure, and this has allowed the executive to dominate over the elected legislature. Pronounced failures by elected representatives must be exposed. Needed is an ‘independent’ Speaker of the House who does not owe his existence to a singular entity within the Assembly – discipline and fairness may return. Possible punishment should be obtainable through petitioning for recall of badly performing elected officials. With formal recall, this ought to be carefully instrumented through a pre-determined aggregation of the electorate followed by strict procedures for the invocation.

There are swelling demands for ample participation in the deliberative and decision-making processes by the electorate. Barbadians are critical of the status quo. Perhaps, one can commend the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) for asserting its position for the creation of a “space for direct democracy” and for “greater consultation and participation, in and out of Parliament.” The fact is, town-hall meetings and other public forums are being demanded whether it is to discuss education, health, transport, or housing. The decisions being made by elected representatives and non-elected officials will affect majority and minority groupings within communities and constituencies.

Deliberation augurs well for finding consensus out of the many different and sometimes conflicting interests on show. The notion of people power is showing signs of recovery after a passive insistence that Barbados’ political culture is characterized by civil docility. The political class traditionally has taken advantage of a system not suited to quick adjustment. Referenda are being put as possible solutions to the failures associated with inadequate direct participation.

People are craving central positionality in terms of decision-making. Essentially, Barbadians want to be able to exercise vital control over elected representatives on the basis that distrust and dissatisfaction are increasingly inhabiting the arena of majoritarian democracy. The vocal distrust against politicians has grown since a decade ago. Social and political commentators have voiced dissatisfaction with the politicians and political parties based on many crucial aspects, inclusive of many broken promises, that help to create despondency and voter apathy in the island.

Numerous persons are concerned about declining qualities of representation inside the national assembly. There are allegations of malfeasance emerging from the citizenry and these have scaled the political divide within Parliament.

It is important that the electorate’s concerns attract meaningful responses both before (manifesto pledges) and after the elections (policy action and legislation).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau in On the Social Contract, Book II, Chapter I – contended that: “If, therefore, the populace promises simply to obey, it dissolves itself by this act, it loses its standing as a people. The very moment there is a master, there no longer is a sovereign, and thenceforward the body politic is destroyed.”

The Barbados body politic is too important an instrument in the scheme of power and governance to accept the status quo without advocating and challenging for appropriate changes.

(Dr George C. Brathwaite is a political consultant. Email: brathwaitegcgmail.com)

One Response to Considering ‘democratic’ reforms

  1. BimJim March 28, 2017 at 7:12 pm

    Barbados operates under the widely accepted descendant form of Westminster democracy widely referred to as “elected dictatorship”. Indeed, even the UK model now seems to operate that way too.

    Usually, the Prime Minister – elevated to that status by his peers in the Party, NOT by the people – calls the shots everyone else bow to those unholy decrees.

    Periodically, a Party Animal is elevated who is such a motionless stuffed dummy that the economy goes to hell in a handbasket because he (or she) is incapable of making ANY decisions – not even bad ones.

    In fact I dare to call this motionless stuffed dummy Freundel Stuart form of Barbados democracy a “tortocracy”, because – as lawyers will know – the “rule of tort” is when you cannot be blamed for something you did not directly cause.

    For example, you cannot blame the government for a pothole in which your car was damaged, because while they did put the road there they did not (directly) cause the pothole. Of course, you can try to blame them, but you won’t get anywhere with it. And then the Police may even charge you with dangerous and/or careless driving to have caused such damage.

    Stuart deserves this “tortocracy” label on his administration because it is clear that he firmly believes that as long as he does nothing he cannot be blamed for any consequences.

    Going by world affairs, EITHER Stuart is one of the stupidest Prime Ministers Barbados has EVER had, or he is the front puppet for a cadre of back-room power moguls, and I would hate to think that any group of Bajans, no matter how rich, would take Barbados into such debt and then force devaluation.

    Unfortunately, Stuart is clearly not intelligent enough to know that as leader of the country it is in fact his bounden duty – even if all of his Cabinet are morons – to lead the nation and to make decisions, and this is one area of tort where doing nothing gets the PM into very, very hot water.

    In fact Stuart’s water right now is at 11 Billion degrees and still rising… uncontrollably, it seems.

    The sooner the current leader of our nation has someone put a paper on a table in front of him and jiggle his hand with a pen in it so that some kind of a mark is made on paper to call an election the better.

    I ask ALL of those democratically-minded people who want to be involved in the running of their own government to prepare themselves for that call… my personal preference would be to see no less than five new political parties on the ballot to challenge both of the entrenched and incompetent “Labour” Parties – neither of which has in the least looked after “Labour” concerns or well being for at least forty years, and which both firmly believe that they will continue to each take turns at the “public trough” for at least the next forty years enriching themselves at the expense of the “Labour” taxpayers of Barbados.

    Let us face it, the Labour parties are the lawmakers, it is THEY who make and change the laws (and who award themselves raises and greater pensions), and they have zero incentive to improve things for the common man when they want to allocate ALL of the available funds from taxes to their own pet projects.

    We need to purge the body politic of the dark miseries with new blood, new thinking, new ways. Change is in the air, and I pray that this time change excludes both the Bees and the Dems. Seriously, a cluster of schoolchildren playing Parliament could do better than these groups of self-centered fossils.

    I believe that a group of people gathered in a new Party with the benefit of Bajans on their minds must far exceed the mediocre stream of waste and hot air these buffoons have regurgitated for the last 40 years.

    Reply

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