From Opposition to Alternative
If I have an opportunity in the future to shape public policy in Barbados and contribute to much-needed modernization of our governance system to make it more relevant and responsive to the changing needs of Barbadians, rethinking and redefining the political concept of Opposition would be high on the priority list.
Why? Because current understanding of the role of the Opposition, not only here in Barbados but across the English-speaking Caribbean where Westminster democracy is practised, may actually be at the root of the unnecessary antagonism and polarization which are hindering our small nations from achieving their true development potential.
The Barbados Constitution, which provides the framework for the practice of British-style Westminster democracy on our island, establishes the position of Leader of the Opposition as a constitutional office. As such, official recognition is given to the importance of an Opposition even though a specific role is not defined and spelt out for the purpose of clarity.
The Opposition is simply defined as “a majority of those members who do not support the Government” within the House of Assembly. Section 74 (1) of The Barbados Independence Order 1966, the official title of our Constitution, states: “There shall be a Leader of the Opposition who shall be appointed by the Governor-General by instrument under the Public Seal.”
Section 74 (2) adds: “Whenever the Governor-General has occasion to appoint a Leader of the Opposition, he shall appoint the member who, in his judgment, is best able to command the support of a majority of those members who do not support the Government…” In the event that there is no such person, the Governor-General can use his discretion in choosing a nominee.
According to Section 74 (2), that person would be “the member of the House who, in (the Governor-General’s) judgment, commands the support of the single largest group of such members who are prepared to support one leader.”
Notwithstanding its constitutional status, Opposition across the region is generally treated, more or less, as if it were a troublesome, disruptive and unwanted bastard child. Being in Opposition, therefore, means being subjected to various subtle forms of discrimination, marginalization, and victimization by the government of the day or, to be more specific, the ruling party.
This is especially so if the government subscribes to the notion of paramountcy of the party with a maximum leader who is portrayed as having God-like qualities and countenances no rivals. Such was the politics practised by the late Eric Matthew Gairy, prime minister of Grenada until his 1979 overthrow by the Opposition New Jewel Movement (NJM) in the English-speaking Caribbean’s first coup d’etat.
Under Gairy who reportedly once said: “He who criticizes me criticizes God”, Maurice Bishop, the Opposition Leader who became prime minister after the coup, and other NJM leaders were harassed and beaten up on a good few occasions by the police and a gang of Gairy-affiliated thugs known as the Mongoose Gang.
The shabby treatment of the Opposition, which our societies seem to unquestionably accept as a norm, was taken to a ridiculous extreme under Gairy who was also accused of rigging elections. It prompted the Opposition ultimately to strike back in equally forceful fashion by taking the law into its own hands and toppling the Gairy government by force of arms.
Generally speaking, the discrimination, marginalization and victimization are subtle. Known or suspected Opposition supporters are denied fair consideration for jobs and other opportunities provided by the government, even though they may be well qualified. Opposition-held constituencies are sometimes punished by allowing vital infrastructure — roads, bridges, schools, etc. — to fall into and remain in a state of disrepair.
Some Barbadians can identify with such experiences which only contribute to sustaining a vicious cycle. When the roles are reversed and it is the turn of opposition parties to form the government, the pattern is repeated and the same treatment or worse is dished out to the supporters of the defeated parties which were former oppressors.
This dog-eat-dog approach to politics is causing considerable harm to our small societies. It is undermining national development and the quest for a better life. In my more than 30-year association with Caribbean politics, I have been fortunate to observe the arena of play from two vantage points. As an outsider monitoring, engaging and reporting on the process as a journalist and as an insider in the role of adviser to governments and opposition parties.
This rich experience has provided exposure to the good, bad and ugly and also a good understanding of how the system works. From this advantageous front-row seat, I have seen the negative effects of such polarization and have been concerned, for quite some time, about the generally shabby treatment of the Opposition. Our politicians, who tend to focus too much on short-term gains, seem insufficiently sensitive to the long term consequences of such polarization.
Otherwise, an end would have been put to the nonsense long ago. I believe it is the word “Opposition” which is at the root of the problem. An inherently negative concept, especially in Caribbean politics where so many actors are insecure and thin-skinned, Opposition conjures up images of resistance, protest, undermining. Which probably explains but does not excuse the general behaviour of governments.
As I see it, the solution, as an important first step in any meaningful governance reform, would be to replace “Opposition” with “Alternative” which is less emotive and better captures the role of the political minority. They are supposed to provide an alternative to the sitting government in every key respect. So that there would be an Alternative instead of an Opposition.
Besides being more palatable, alternative is more reflective of the true nature of democracy which is about diversity of views and ideas in the search for solutions to common problems. Our generally thin-skinned governments which are more interested in receiving praise, ought to recognize that a fair share of criticism comes with the political territory.
The alternative’s role is not really to support the government of the day. Its role is to keep the government on its toes and to articulate an alternative vision of how the economy and society should be developed. Neither Government nor the Alternative has a monopoly on ideas. And what ultimately matters is not so much the path taken but reaching the destination once it delivers a better quality of life for the people.
The experience of some developed countries is instructive. When I lived in Canada, for example, during the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney, a development which greatly impressed me was the appointment of Stephen Lewis, a leader of the socialist opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), as Ambassador to the United Nations.
It impressed because such would have been unthinkable in Caribbean politics because Lewis would be seen as an “enemy” unless, of course, he had agreed to cross over to the government side. Lewis was chosen, not because of his politics, but because he had the right skills for the job given Canada’s strategic objectives at the time.
Partisan political considerations, therefore, were set aside and his expertise was tapped to advance the national interest. I long to see such political maturity in Barbados. “You may say I’m a dreamer,” to quote The Beatles hit song, Imagine, “but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will be as one.”
(Reudon Eversley is a Carleton University-trained political strategist, strategic communication specialist and longstanding journalist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)