The George Brathwaite Column – 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.” – (The 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 that possess the ultimate power. This obviously will depend on who are the people, and under what specific conditions can the power be utilised.
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-emphasised 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 prevails 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 interests 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 that 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 characterised 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.