Parliamentary Democracy Under the Microscope: Agenda for Change
Submitted by Doc Martin
I resonate with commentators on this blog and elsewhere who see the 30-0 sweep wrought by BLP in the May 24 election as a blessing in disguise. But not necessarily for the same reasons! For those who are willing to look, listen and learn from their mistakes and for those who have “come of age” politically, it is indeed a blessing.
Even as this is being written, the post-election political situation continues to unravel with the so-called crossing of the floor by one of the successful BLP candidates in the May 24 election. This, together with the subtle (and not-so-subtle) retreat of the Prime Minister from some of the promises made in the election, as well as her feigned attempts to convince Barbadians that she is now getting to learn the true gravity of the debt situation, should cause Barbadians to sit up, take note and demand changes in our system of democracy.
The first blessing in disguise is that the party that itself entered into several large debts on the country’s behalf, must now come and attempt to manage what is left of theirs and that added by the DLP. That is poetic justice if ever there was any. And to have to do it all alone i.e. with no real parliamentary opposition, is also some poetic justice. Bajans do have short memories! Many have forgotten the 200 – 700 million (we are still not sure of the final figure) spent on the prison at Dodds, St. Philip by the previous BLP administration of 1994 – 2008. Perhaps an enquiry into the occupancy level at the prison in the context of its capacity might yield interesting results. If we have the capacity, we could consider renting/leasing out part of it to other Caribbean or Latin American countries (payable in Canadian dollars, of course!). That might help us with some of our foreign exchange problems!
Democracy under the Microscope
Another of the blessings the situation affords us is the opportunity to review the workings of our system of democracy. The occasion of the 30-0 BLP has now exposed, in sharp relief, the inadequacies, not only of the first-past-the-post system but more fundamentally, the dysfunctions of so-called “representative democracy”. Both are in need of urgent attention by the electorate.
With respect to the FPTP system, the revision required is very clear: we need to consider moving to the proportional representation system so that this 30-0 result can never occur again. Many do not know or have forgotten that not all Caribbean countries have a first-past-the-post system. Guyana has had a system of proportional representation since 1964 and although the ethnic situation in Guyana is different from that in Barbados, there does not seem to have been any major problems with the system. A quick overview of the system in Guyana can be found here: http://www.nowgrenada.com/2015/05/proportional-representation-guyana-recent-elections/.
Had a system of proportional representation been in place in Barbados, the results of the election, using the simplest proportional representation calculations, would have been as follows:
The Representative: Servant or Master?
Democracy literally means government by the people; in other words, decision-making by the people. In practical terms this means that whenever major decisions are to be made, all the eligible people are to make it for themselves by one mechanism or another. This form of direct democracy is still practised today in the cantons of Switzerland to some extent. The interested reader can follow this link to read a non-technical article about this: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/07/switzerland-direct-democracy-explained/.
The form of democracy we practice is called representative/parliamentary democracy. It is an INDIRECT form of democracy in that the people periodically select a set of persons to conduct their affairs over a five year period at a time. In principle, the relationship we have with our parliamentary representatives really ought to be the same principal-agency relationship that we have with our attorney or perhaps our real estate agent. In other words, the so-called politician ought to be our servant, plain and simple.
But due to a potent combination of indolence, ignorance and “ostrichism” on our part as well as the scheming, manipulation and sheer corruption on the part of those we have elected, we have allowed the roles to be reversed so that the agent has become the principal, the servant, the master. So then it IS true that we have settled for a democracy that is “five minutes every five years in a polling booth!”. That is the crux of the problem we have been facing for a long time.
That is why this constitutional and financial crisis that we are up against must be seen as the opportune moment to get back hands on control of our affairs. It cannot be that we ask 30 persons to represent us for the next five years and then go about our business like absentee landlords. There was a time, in the very distant past, when we could sit back and let our representatives get on with the job knowing they had our best interest at heart. Those were the days of altruism and chivalry! We are witnesses to the fact that those days are gone! Today’s politician knows how to work the system to the benefit of himself/herself and his or her band of outlaws (pun intended!) and yard fowls. In short, today’s average politician is a highway robber, in broad daylight! Now is the time to put an end to this!
Therefore, with respect to the system of representative parliamentary democracy itself, there is need at this time for two “mission critical” revisions: (1) power to recall representatives and (2) integrity legislation.
Power of Recall
The need for the power of recall by the electorate is urgently needed. The servants of the people cannot take for granted that they can cross the floor at will, fail to look after the interests of citizens or commit gross acts of corruption with our taxes with impunity. At the time of writing this, one successful BLP candidate had announced and solidified his intention to “cross the floor”. In my view, this is a developing situation and so what the expression “cross the floor” really means, in the absence of an official opposition party, is yet to be unravelled. Is Mr. Atherley now an independent? It is in situations like these that one would wish the electorate had the power of recall of representatives. Then the political career of people like Hamilton Lashley might have been written somewhat differently! We should now see the wisdom of the Solutions Barbados contract with its candidates!
With regard to integrity, much can be said, especially when one takes into account the claims of corruption and counter-corruption levelled at both parties. It is common knowledge that enhanced sales promotion techniques, a.k.a. as “vote buying” were used in May 24 election. Some parties’ T-shirts came with up to $300.00 cash in “incentives” it appears. It is alleged that in the St. James South constituency, about $10,000 was shared out, though apparently, not by the DLP. In another case, it is alleged, a load of voters arrived at a polling station but did not know that the name of the candidate they were to vote for! This is the level to which our parliamentary democracy has descended! It is time to put a stop to this!
Nobody seems too worried that we have allowed our servant-representatives to successively raise their parliamentary salaries to $17,000 plus PER MONTH as well as earn substantial pensions with just eight years of service while civil servants need to put in thirty three (33) and a third years to be eligible for a modest to measly pension at the time of their lives when they need the most help. It has not gone unnoticed that none of the parties, first, second or third, made reduction of parliamentary salaries an election issue! I wonder why!
If I am not mistaken, the majority of this population is black so when I hear commentators talk about white-on-black exploitation and omit to talk about this black-on-black variety of exploitation, it stokes my ire, to put it mildly. Does exploitation now come with a choice of colour?
Agenda for Change
I repeat that the 30-0 victory by the BLP is a blessing in disguise. The blessing is the opportunity to make FUNDAMENTAL and RADICAL changes to our democracy. We, the ordinary people, may not get this type of opportunity again. With that in mind, we need to envision a new Barbados and extrapolating from that, devise an agenda for change. We need to multi-task; while we are fixing the economy we should have the following on OUR agenda for change:
#1: Familiarization with the Constitution
All citizens should have a good read of the constitution. Not every thing will be easily understood but many might be surprised to find out what is written there about some of the matters discussed here. If we are going to LIVE democracy every day, we must begin with knowing our constitution. It should be mandatory reading in all schools! A link to the constitution is provided here.
Some constitutional changes require a two-thirds majority in the house. For this reason, the BLPs 30-0 victory is a not only a blessing in disguise it is a two-edged sword! Even with Mr. Atherley’s ostensible “crossing of the floor”, the Government has more than enough to change critical aspects of the constitution. That is why, in short order, Ms. Mottley can and will put through a constitutional change to accommodate the entry of Mr. Adams to the Senate! The people must make this sword work for them by demanding the changes they want. Gawking and talking, reacting and over-reacting will not bring about changes by themselves. We must deliberately organize to demand changes through our representatives and/or by other means. We are the masters, not the servants!
#2: Change to Proportional Representation
Citizens must now begin to debate in earnest the change to proportional representation. At least two sessions of the People’s Business should be devoted to this issue. CBC TV should be guided accordingly. This should be followed by town hall meetings on the topic. The third parties should see this as an opportunity to go back to their constituencies with an urgent issue that supersedes all parochial issues. I am aware that proportional representation will have implications for the level of directness of representation of constituencies but this can be thrashed out in the process and some home grown solution worked out. The 30-0 election outcome should never again occur!
#3: Power of Recall
We talked about this earlier. No need for any more discussion. Let’s get on with it.
#4: Reduction of Parliamentary Salaries
All hands should be on deck to demand the roll back of parliamentary salaries to some acceptable level. In lieu of this reduction, a bonus linked to performance of the economy could be paid to ministers of government every two years. The performance should be linked to growth in GDP! Pay for performance. Fair is fair.
#5: Change in Regulations for Parliamentary Pensions
Barbadians should demand a change in the legislation regarding pensions for politicians. Such pensions should not be earned by parliamentary representatives with less than fifteen years of consecutive parliamentary service. This is just under half of the time a civil servant must spend to be eligible for a pension! On this there should be no compromise. It is the people’s money and therefore, any idea that this cannot be done is foolishness! Write your parliamentary representative about this as early as tomorrow.
#6: Demand Integrity Legislation
Demand that integrity legislation be passed within the current year. We have had enough talk about this and the incidence of corruption keeps increasing. THIS should be mission critical from the perspective of the electorate!
Integrity legislation should not only include declaration of assets but declaration of significant debts owed by the parliamentary representative. That’s right! If you have significant debts, e.g. gambling debt or an extravagant mortgage, especially if it either is burdensome, it is reasonable to assume that you would be more than likely to take a bribe! Whistle blower legislation built around the concepts suggested by Solutions Barbados should be incorporated into this legislation.
In future, a tax clearance certificate should be mandatory for all those intending to present themselves as representatives of the people. How is it that our representatives can demand that we pay taxes and have tax clearance certificates to get on with OUR business but not they themselves? How did we got to this place? By being an “absentee” electorate, that is how!
Incidentally, the constitution of Barbados has something to say about the financial suitability to be a parliamentary representative. Section 44 (1) states, inter alia:
No person shall be qualified to be elected as a member of the House of Assembly who….(f) has been adjudged or otherwise declared bankrupt under any law in force in Barbados and has not been discharged;(g) is disqualified for membership of the House of Assembly by or under any law in force in Barbados by reason of his having been convicted or reported guilty of any corrupt or illegal practice at elections;
Very interesting indeed! You should also read what is says about Senators!
#6: Abolish Allegiance to the British Monarchy
Here is how the first schedule of the constitution of Barbados begins:
Oath of AllegianceI………………………. do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Her Heirs and Successors, according to law. So help me God!
Sounds familiar? This is what the all ministers of government swore at the ceremony on Bay Street! The time has come to do away with our allegiance to the British monarchy! More than fifty years after independence, the presence of this in our constitution is beyond ridiculous! Moreover, given the “unroyal” behaviour of the Queen’s “Heirs and Successors” of late, it is scandalous! Our honour as an independent people cannot be sacrificed any longer on the altar of historic sentimentality! Is not this the same country that tried to rob our family and friends (the so-called Windrush generation) of their rights as naturalized British citizens?
I know we have had this conversation a long time ago; that is why we should be no longer interested in long talk! Tell this government to get it done. It has more than the two-thirds majority required, notwithstanding Mr. Atherley’s “cross over”! Guyana has done it; so also Trinidad and Tobago. No British warships were sent to block the move and the countries have not gone up in a puff of smoke!
By the way, while we are at it, we should demand the abolition of the Senate. This institution is a throw back to the House of Lords, a term that we should consider anathema as an independent country! It is a waste of tax-payers money, a loophole to create ministries for unelected party members and by its structure, serves only to rubber stamp the decisions of the so-called Lower House. If we adopt proportional representation system, the so-called Lower House should have a wide enough variety of interests represented which will obviate the need for the Senate. For a small country like Barbados the Senate is a luxury. It is time to reduce the size of government and run a lean, mean administration.
But, back to the point. If Britain can enter the EU and “BREXIT”, at considerable cost, we can “exit” the monarchy and its trappings at a deep discount! So when you hear the objections of the “lawyertocracy” (especially those who emigrated to and were educated in the UK) who are just waiting to be on the Queen’s New Year List of Honours, just tell them this: “Just do it!”