The George Brathwaite Column – A Call for Direct Democracy
Generally, it is suggested that democratic politics involves public deliberation focused on the common good; it requires some form of manifest equality among citizens, and shapes the identity and interests of citizens in ways that contribute to the formation of a public conception of the common good. The great philosopher Aristotle posits that “the character of democracy creates democracy, and the character of oligarchy creates oligarchy.” American Senator, Elizabeth Warren contends that “democracy cannot be a spectator sport.” Taken together, these statements suggest that attaining democratic ideals is not something which can be done alone. Rather, every Barbadian has a significant role to play through ‘the general will’ in the interest of this democratic nation.
Democracy, properly understood, must project the power of the people to decide both directly and indirectly in the country’s affairs. Ironic though, is the contention that democracy in Barbados perfunctorily entails a representative system of governance that is headed by elected Members of Parliament (MPs) who rule ‘over the people in the name of ruling on their behalf’. Given the prevailing distrust and sometimes contempt for elected representatives, it would be recalcitrant to submit that Barbadians are willing to increasingly delegate life-altering decisions to MPs. Barbadians must rightfully pursue spaces in which to become firm craftsmen of their fate.
Notwithstanding, the texture and quality of representative democracy is sufficiently challenged by citizens wanting to assume a more direct role in affecting the choices of their political parties and the functionality of government – charity begins at home. The problems of parliament and parties, declining active participation rates, executive interference, and issues of legitimacy all arise in the context of Barbados’ governance. Voter turnout is relatively low, and public trust in political parties and elected representatives have become extremely worrisome. Parliamentary debate in Barbados has been dismissively called ‘poor-rakey’.
Undoubtedly, representative democracy is being tested. Among the reasons are: the persistent disconnect between politicians and constituents; illogical decision-making that exposes the paltry quality of representation; and allegations of malfeasance by some too selfish to serve with integrity. On those premises, the selection or rejection of candidates by political parties (i.e. old and newly formed), willing to contest the next elections in Barbados, has rekindled fascination and interest. Numerous constituents across Barbados are realising that theirs is captivity to a governance system which embellishes profound inconsistencies, several paradoxes, and multiple contradictions.
It appears that some among us are taking the lead in advocating for change. ‘Rubbing shoulders’ and ‘staying connected’ have become buzzwords in the wake of disgust against the status quo. Barbadians constantly express the desire to exercise ‘people power’ through a shakeup of their parliamentary representatives. Informatively, Baleka Mbete, Speaker of the National Assembly of South Africa, in 2008 acknowledged that: “We can still collectively take responsibility to symbolically lead our people to a different future where we talk about different values, different principles that guide how we govern the affairs of the country.” If Barbadians are to be directly involved in government and administrative practice outside the parameters of traditional representativeness, then more must be done to shape a nation of informed citizens.
Yet, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau affirms: “People always desire what is good, but they do not always see what is good. You can never corrupt the people, but you can often fool them.” Alleviating the problems frontally requires stringent but practical demands from the electorate. Barbados must become knowledgeable and creative in terms of remedying bothersome phenomena that hamper our democracy. Surely, it would be refreshing if Barbadians seriously consider a myriad of innovative schemes while accepting the usefulness of technology and e-frameworks with the potential for expanding active citizen participation in the affairs of the country.
Coincidentally, young people appear more interested in the use of technologies, social networking, and different interactive tools. Clearly, having consultations with the public to inform decision-makers of citizens’ views, could easily maximise the use of public meetings, town-hall meetings, e-platforms, and focus groups within targeted communities. The practice of deliberation could aim to bring citizens together to discuss policy issues using multiple modalities. The outcomes may influence decision-makers, for instance, through the mounting of consensus conferences and opinion polling which feedback to authorities.
Next could be co-governance that aims to give Barbadians significant influence during the process of decision-making. The focus could be on revisiting and reshaping the current community councils, incentivising civil society, and courting independent initiatives inclusive of youth councils and women organisations whose inputs are to be encouraged and valued. Most importantly, direct democracy applied with the aim to give Barbadians final decision-making power on key issues is vital and empowering. Added to the use of e-meetings, there can be formal introduction of the referendum; this, despite this writer’s personal reservation regarding such due to the likelihood of tyranny of the majority.
Notwithstanding, these mechanisms have the potential for Barbadians contributing to decision-making, and them making the final decision on key policies. Certainly, there will be questions of probity, timeliness, effectiveness, and necessity if direct democracy is to become resident in Barbados’ political system, and representative (indirect) democracy is to become more efficient. One readily recollects the Report of the Constitution Review Commission 1998 that was chaired by Sir Henry Forde. The Report noted among other things that citizens felt the Barbados Constitution contained “certain undesirable, anti-democratic provisions” with “too great a concentration of power in the hands of the Prime Minister,” and “too little accountability, both by public officials and parliamentarians.” These shortcomings are still present and the deficiencies have become more pronounced.
To curb some of the unwanted perils, a ‘recall’ system ought to be implemented to serve as a check against infelicitous elected representatives. Barbadians may also consider forming specific citizens’ assemblies that are selected by sortation; everyone would have a similar chance of becoming part of the governance process. Indeed, recommendations emerging from the Forde Commission, indicated that every eligible person in Barbados should “participate in the economic, political and social life of Barbados” in addition to contributing “to the well-being of Barbados to the best of that person’s ability.” Barbados’ political elites together with the electorate can push for these proposed practical mechanisms.
Consequentially, one must contemplate whether citizens and residents (i.e. the electorate) have the knowledge, ability, and right to participate more fully and directly in the political, technical, and administrative decisions that affect them. Again, Rousseau tells us that “one must not confuse what is appropriate with what is necessary, simple duty with narrow right, and what can be required of us with what we should do voluntarily.” The contention is that while the state does not legally require Barbadians to compulsorily participate in public affairs of the nation, Barbadians nonetheless have a duty to determine for themselves the laws which guide the state – ‘a duty to collectively control their common destiny’.
Simultaneously, building institutional capacity that facilitates civic inclusion and direct democratic participation ought to be continuous. Advisedly, failures in direct participation could be attributed to ‘learned helplessness’ and the success of a socio-cultural system that prevents Barbadians’ substantive participation in the first place; this characteristic necessitates openness. To that end, legislation supporting Freedom of Information, Freedom of the Press, Voter Empowerment, Ethics and Integrity ought to be introduced to strengthen democracy in Barbados. It is the people’s right to be engaged in decisions that touch their lives. Direct participation can be facilitated without dismantling effective elements of representativeness.
(Dr George C. Brathwaite is a political consultant. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)