A case for political reform

Recently, the Opposition Leader, Mia Mottley, floated the idea of increasing the number of members of the House of Assembly, and was widely denounced. However, few seem to recognize that she was trying to find a solution to the paradoxical situation in Barbados where a numerically weak Government can be more powerful than one with a larger parliamentary majority.

We like to indulge in the fantasy that we follow the Westminster system of government. However, anything beyond a cursory examination reveals that we practice a gross perversion of that system. The integrity of the Westminster system is not solely based on the formal structure but also on the conventions followed by its members. In Barbados, one of the many perversions is the lack of accountability and the failure to accept responsibility by our political officials.

Ministers don’t resign in the face of scandal or incompetence, either personal or within their portfolios. Likewise, the Speaker of the House of Assembly, despite having a court judgment against him regarding the handling of a client’s funds, still presides in the Lower House as if it is business as usual. Certainly, the Speaker of the House of Commons would have resigned immediately in the face of such a scandal even if he was guilty of nothing more than poor management of client relationships.

Another example of our perverted system is the use of parliamentary manoeuvring to constrain the Public Accounts Committee as an effective tool to hold the Government accountable. In a properly functioning parliament, Opposition parties use the PAC to telling effect. Currently, the effectiveness of any parliamentary Opposition is hobbled because every Government member in the House is either a member of Cabinet or one of the presiding officers of parliament. Because of their mutual interests, they close ranks and “circle the wagons” in all circumstances.

This is the inevitable result of having no backbench on the Government’s side to balance power of the Executive. Furthermore, the Prime Minister also appoints an absolute majority of Senators (twelve out of twenty-one). The result is that the Senate will only ever be able to rubber stamp government policies and, as such, will never function like the House of Lords in Westminster which provides a check on the British government’s power.

In addition, in Britain there is public accountability via Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, BBC shows like Question Time, and a petitions system which trigger debates in the House of Commons. Currently, none of this exists in Barbados. Is there any wonder that our economy, our polity and our society seem to be spiralling slowly but inexorably toward the abyss?

We watch helplessly as our fate unfolds before our eyes, but as in a nightmare, we feel powerless to do anything about it. It is worrisome that similarly close elections resulting in the same dysfunction in Government and parliament can be expected in the foreseeable future. I cannot imagine Barbados continuing in this comatose state, dancing hypnotically with a destiny of failure.

This is the malady Ms Mottley was trying to address with her suggestion to increase the number of seats in the House of Assembly. I do understand the negative reaction to her suggestion. After all, given the state of the economy, where will the money come from to pay for more MPs? And there is also the reflexive rejoinder of “Drain the Swamp” by well-meaning critics; but is that populist meme an appropriate answer to the question raised?

There is, however, another way to address Ms Mottley’s concerns. We could change the composition of the Senate and the appointment process in a way that would better reflect the democratic will of the Barbadian people. My thought is that the relative number of Senators should be allocated based on the share of the vote obtained by each party in the immediately preceding General Election. Therefore, if a party gets 40% of the popular vote, its leader gets to appoint 40% of the political appointees to the Senate.

This change would transform the Senate from a mere rubber stamp for Government policies to a more dynamic institution and lead to more diverse representation in that Chamber by giving a voice and status to more than the two main political parties and selected special interests. We should also consider reducing the number of the Governor General’s appointees from seven to five and increasing the political party appointees from fourteen to twenty, for a net increase of four.

Therefore, the proposed structure would be a Senate of twenty-five members. One-fifth would be appointed by the Governor General to represent special interests while the remaining twenty would be appointed by the political parties that contested the immediately preceding election. In this system, roughly 5% of the national vote would translate to one Senate seat.

This means that, for the first time, marginal or new political parties could have a parliamentary voice, provided they can achieve sufficient traction with the electorate. As a country, we can only benefit from a more diverse and inclusive parliament.

The increase in the number of Senators in a more dynamic and representative body can be justified given the clear benefits to our democracy. Furthermore, the increase could be paid for by a 10% reduction in the salaries of all parliamentarians. Therefore, we would be doing more with the same amount of money so as not to increase the financial burden on the Treasury in these difficult times.

Obviously, the day to day operations of the Government cannot be held hostage as happens in the United States when Congress fails to act and “shuts down the government”. Likewise, national security cannot be compromised. Thus, the newly composed Senate should only be able to reject money bills (budgetary appropriations and supplementals) and national security bills just once.

If the Lower House passes the same bill again, it can then go directly to the Governor General for assent. All other bills should be passed in the Senate in the usual manner before they become law. Importantly, before any of this happens, what constitutes a national security issue must be very clearly and carefully defined to minimize abuse by the Government.

The Senate should also be able to appoint standing and select committees to further its deliberative work. One standing committee should be a Public Accounts Committee, out of the direct reach of the Executive. Another, should be a Public Ethics Committee to set standards of ethical conduct for members of parliament and the most senior public officers, and to investigate and report on suspected violations of those standards.

I offer this contribution to the public debate about our system of governance and hope that other people will add their voices so that as citizens we can help to reshape our destiny.

19 Responses to A case for political reform

  1. Rawle Spooner
    Rawle Spooner May 17, 2017 at 12:13 pm

    Ok reform might be needed but where was Mia when her party was in power for 14 straight years and if her party was in power and in same identical position as the governing DLP would she be calling for such reforms,don’t damm think so.Listen politicians in Barbados not accountable or transparent to citizens and it has been that way for ever regardless of which of these two political parties that have ever only govern in Barbados so as far as I’m concern this is nothing but politicking on Mia part.Make no mistake I’m not a fan of either of these two political parties in Barbados period.

    Reply
    • Nia Brathwaite May 17, 2017 at 12:46 pm

      First of all, Mia wasn’t the leader of her party when it was last in power so it wouldn’t have been her call to make at the time. Furthermore, because the last election was so close, the slim governmental majority in Parliament has revealed flaws in the system that were not as obvious before since historically, governments had larger parliamentary majorities. It doesn’t matter whether you are a fan of either party because no matter what you think, one of them will make up the next government. What matters is who seems likely to do the least harm and Mia at least acknowledges and proposes solutions on how to solve some accountability and transparency issues that you highlighted.

      Reply
    • Gavin Dawson
      Gavin Dawson May 17, 2017 at 3:57 pm

      Rawle Spooner, you must not forget Ms Mottley has never been a PM. Deputy yes, it was always Owen Arthur, so we don’t know how things will pan out if she and her party become the Govt; of the day.

      Reply
  2. Alex Alleyne May 17, 2017 at 12:31 pm

    HOW LONG WILL THIS POLITICAL REFORM TAKES IF YOU ARE PUT IN OFFICE ????.

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  3. Sandor Barker
    Sandor Barker May 17, 2017 at 12:32 pm

    Sounds very feasible.
    A sound argument. On a critical thinking perspective it is capable of being done. We do need more checks and balances in our political system.

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    • Mark My Word May 17, 2017 at 12:56 pm

      Checks and balances YES more MP”s No

      Reply
  4. Johnathan May 17, 2017 at 1:17 pm

    Rawle Spooner you idiot was Mia the Prime Minister. Thought the only clowns were Zeus and Sherlock Holmes but Lord have mercy there seems to be a new one that is an even a bigger clown then the two of them put together.
    Listen to an intelligent with a heart for revolutionizing our country and try and learn something. Don’t be like DEM all the time……..

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  5. Paul Chestnut
    Paul Chestnut May 17, 2017 at 1:18 pm

    Wanna still talking about fourteen years cha man….what about nine years doesn’t that account for something..you mean to tell me the dems want nine more years….OK take them…..but what I can personally say….the fourteen years weren’t as terrible as the last nine…

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  6. hcalndre May 17, 2017 at 1:23 pm

    @Rawle Spooner, you right when you said the BLP was there for 14 years, does it mean that she can`t bring these issues to the table now. This Westminster system is used by the Politicians in Barbados when it suits them and another time they react like a Banana Republic with the things that they can do and don`t have to answer to any committee. The Speaker of the House should be long gone but is still holding that position, under the Westminster system in England nor in the US he would not even be in the party any more but the very PM told him to get a lawyer that only a fool would represent himself in the court when he should have told him if that`s what he is accused of and its proved that he will have to relinquish that position. In the US he would be disbarred and possibly jailed, he could ask a few of his bajan-US attorneys.

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  7. tsquires May 17, 2017 at 2:01 pm

    This fiasco is what gubernatorial governance is all about, the government controlling the people’s minds, as democracy is the mockery we are seeing, and it won’t change until we the people let the politricians know; that we are the Government and they are put there to serve us, rather than the insulting language used to describe their employers as enemies of the state, truly these should never again be voted into the house of privilege. We are placing too much dependency on these jokers, that is why they walk around as if they have created themselves. Wake up People.

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  8. Alex Alleyne May 17, 2017 at 2:47 pm

    A standing MP in England is saying ” USA Trump is the first Politician that is being criticize for carrying out his campaign promises”. Here we see that the DLP in office are being taken to task for not carrying out theirs. I do hope that if/when the BLP come to office that all of us remember this.
    NO PARTISAN POLITICS………just facts.
    ALL FOR LOVE OF COUNTRY.

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  9. David Brathwaite May 17, 2017 at 2:52 pm

    Just for clarity (especially to Rawle Spooner), I submitted the letter to the editor, not Mia Mottley. And I am no politician.

    I just think that Barbadians need to critically examine all aspects of our system of governance, especially now that we have had fifty plus years to see its strengths and its flaws.

    No one can seriously argue that the last four years, since the 2013 election, have not revealed some major weaknesses in the structure of parliament.

    Anytime we have a close election in the future, we can expect more of the same dysfunction that we observe today, and we should do something about it ASAP.

    That is the point I was trying to make.

    Reply
  10. jrsmith May 17, 2017 at 2:56 pm

    For an small island like barbados we have too large a political infrastructure ,,, what do all these people do and we are still in a mess , is as like building a house and has employed all painters……
    Its okay to consider we suppose to be an educated democracy , but only 1% of our nation really enjoy any for of democracy, our black people are scared to confront or challenge the politicians , the said politicians , can do as they please , behave as rude as they please , in other words ( in Barbados our politicians is above the law )…..
    ***************************************************
    Our politicians cannot account for 800 millions Bds dollars , the (Audit General’s )report which is missing , but they have gotten away with it ,because its barbados , how dear we try to criticize others when our own is very corrupt and crooked ………………..

    If Barbados was a true fair and equal society , most of our politicians would be in (DODDS) thats why ,,, ( I feel the hasty reason the region wanted to have (CCJ) not answering to the (Privy Consul) which means they are fully not accountable , to the black masses ….
    I want bajans to be able to remove (MPs) from office by the same vote, which put them there, we cannot allow the pain and suffering to go on , if they are not working for the people we remove them from office………………………
    All bajans do is to cast a vote every political term , to secure jobs for politicians who are failures …….(.we cant take anymore.)

    Reply
    • J. Payne May 17, 2017 at 8:47 pm

      (Quote)If Barbados was a true fair and equal society , most of our politicians would be in (DODDS) thats why ,,, ( I feel the hasty reason the region wanted to have (CCJ) not answering to the (Privy Consul) which means they are fully not accountable , to the black masses ….(End Quote)
      The funny thing is, the Commonwealth Caribbean said they were leaving the British Privy Counsul because they didn’t feel they could interpret the various Caribbean nation’s constitutions as they are written. The comedic side of that is the British Privy Counsul is made up of the UK’s House of Lords. It was some of those ***SAME*** House Of Lords in London who wrote most of the Constitutions in the Caribbean 40-50 years ago and turned them over to the British House of Commons and The King/Queen to give Royal assent to thus bringing them into force. lol And some how the Caribbean politicians feel they won’t know how to interpret the Constitutions better when London wrote a bulk of them in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia over the decades. Almost every three-six months the UK was giving another nation political independence. Some of them can draft up/write a sound Constitution in their sleep with all the practice they get. Plus decisions by the JCBPC are less biased because they have no vested interest. Which is why the Commonwealth of the Bahamas has the British Privy Counsul fly to the Bahamas once a year to hear all their cases locally and once the cases are decided in that unbiased setting the Law Lords fly along back to the U.K. where they came. That’s no different than having an independent court of arbitration of sorts operating in the Bahamas to hear the nation’s highest cases.

      Reply
  11. Bobo May 17, 2017 at 4:32 pm

    Ref to jrsmith–last line–Bajans are educated to depend on politicians–I was recently in Barbados -I spoke to many Bajans –my first question –what is ”Democracy” and what is the name of laws govern their country(Barbados)–adults and school children could not give me an answer–sad but true–

    Reply
  12. Alex Alleyne May 17, 2017 at 4:43 pm

    That is because they have been “bamboozled” for too long.

    Reply
    • Jennifer May 17, 2017 at 5:06 pm

      bamboozled, but with what Alex?

      Reply
  13. Tony Waterman May 17, 2017 at 5:52 pm

    @jrsmith!!!! For a long time now, i have been pleading with you Bloggers to at least LOOK at my proposal for Political Change in Barbados, and to Go to a “Government of Reconstruction” but no one is takin/Took even a look , as a matter of fact i wa roundly criticized and Called a “Communist” although my system entails FREE and FAIR Elections.
    The present system has been in place for all of the Political Life of Barbados sometime between 1627 and 2017 (we still have it).
    The Westminister Style of Government was never intended as a means of helping us FREED Black People (Slaves) it was there to Control us and keep us in Check, our present Day problems arose when our People, Descendants of those Former Slaves Finally too Control of our Heritage and Fate, we soon found out that the ensuing sytem was Good if we wanted to Live well off the Hog like our former masters did, so we let the Status quo remain.

    In order to RID ourselves of this Archaic “WHITE COLONIAL” System, there MUST be a RADICAL Change in Political Thinking in Barbados and throughout the Caribbean Basin.

    We MUST first BAN Political Parties, they are creations of Man, and as such can be dismantles, we must then Institute a System FOR, OF, and BY the People, we must start to elect INDIVIDUALS to our Parliament to do OUR Bidding.

    For Elections all who want to Participate in Government, will have to go through the same procedure as we do now, but NOT under the aegis of a Political Party, But as an Individual, and on Election Day, his Name will be on the Ballot in ALL 11 Parishes, not in the present day little enclaves, where their strength could lie.

    Also on the Ballot will be the Names of those in the Race who aspire to tbe the “Prime Minister” yes we will be voting for the PM also (Across the Island)

    I Parliament there will be an equal number of Representatives, and a Prime Minister. (EG: Todays Parliament 30 seats, so under my system it would be 30 Searts Plus The PM=31 Seats) The PM would be the Tie Breaker if a Vote was Locked at 15 Yeah and 15 Nay.

    the whole System would STILL be a DEMOCRATIC System, Big Difference it would have been put ther OF, BY and FOR the People.

    One Last Thing, there will be no free Rides under my System as there will be RULES OF RECALL anytime during that Retained 4 Year Period of The Elected Government, and there will be rules as to how and when Recall of a sitting Member would be invoked. (Can Only be after 1 full Year of Sitting)

    I would love to Hear what you all think of what this HISTORIC Change in Course COULD/WOULD Do for Barbados, and Perhaps the entire Caribbean Region.

    Com on Let’s get it on, let’s save us from ourselves.

    Reply
  14. Alex Alleyne May 17, 2017 at 9:39 pm

    @Tony, we all must consult Mr. Wickham on your idea. Only problem “he might want a piece of change”. I for sure don’t believe in working for FREE.

    Reply

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