Today we will upset some — that’s par for the course. What we hope would be a more meaningful reaction, however, is if Barbadians give the issue some thought and perhaps engage in some discussion on the matter. Such an approach could lead meaningful change.
Yesterday, Opposition Leader Mia Mottley, who now has to be considered a veteran member of the House of Assembly, held a press conference during which she criticised a number of approaches of the ruling Democratic Labour Party and pointed to some “weaknesses” and “flaws” in the Budget presented a few weeks ago by Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs, Chris Sinckler.
The most significant call she made, in our opinion, was for an urgent reconvening of Parliament so action could be taken on matters arising from the Budget, which reportedly have caused some confusion among those who are to be affected by the measures as well as those who are to administer them.
We do not believe it is critical at this stage to pronounce on whether Mottley’s assertions are right or wrong, or whether there has in fact been chaos created by the specific measures.
Our concern is with an issue we have raised before — the maturity and effectiveness of the systems of governance, particularly the two houses of Parliament. We don’t believe we are wrong when we say that given the current mechanism, Mottley can sing until the cows come home, because neither the Prime Minister nor anyone else responsible for the convening of Parliament is under any obligation to even listen to her, far less act on her call.
In fact, anyone who follows the business of Parliament would recognise that the number of Tuesdays on which it has not sat since the year opened far outnumber those when it was in session.
The House of Assembly has met just about a dozen times since the February 21 general election.
The state opening and first sitting of the new Parliament was on March 6, 2013. This was followed by sittings on March 12 and 18 to 22 (when the Estimates Debate was held) after which the Lower House went on Easter recess.
Sittings resumed on May 7, and continued on May 14, June 11, 18 and 25, July 9, 16 and 23, and August 13, 14 and 15 when the Financial Statement and Budgetary Proposals were delivered and debated.
The last sitting was on August 23, after which the House went on Summer recess to return on October 15.
Generally, we do not keep track of when Parliament sits, but it certainly does appear that within recent years these have become fewer and fewer.
We ask the question again: Have we not reached the stage in our development when we need to give serious consideration to the revamping of our parliamentary system?
In fact, within the context of the current fiscal challenges, ought we not to look at whether what we now have is giving us the best bang for our buck? We accept that the number of parliamentarians is tied to a complex boundary demarcation system and is hardly likely to be reduced at this stage, but do we need to pay MPs the way we do? With so much emphasis placed on productivity by everyone else, should we not be paying our parliamentarians according to how often they are required to attend Parliament?
Still on the issue of governance, is it not reasonable to ask whether we need a Cabinet of the size we have had traditionally over the past two decades? Seriously, does it not appear that a number of the current Cabinet allocations are at best part-time positions — and this is not a reflection on the office holders, but the duties that fall under the particular portfolios.
But we cannot touch the subject of governance without questioning whether the size of our population and the nature of the business in which we are engaged require a Parliament as large as we now have when the Senate and the House of Assembly are combined.
Perhaps, a thorough review might reveal that the country would be better served with fewer parliamentarians, but a larger number of “qualified” professional staff attached to the MPs who are so heavily engaged in state matters between sittings that Barbadians can readily see and measure outcomes.
Given our current first-past-the-post Westminster-style approach to governance, we have a parliamentary system where half of the elected contribute virtually nothing to the process but talk, and even when what they say makes perfect sense, those who govern generally ignore it for party-political expediency. And this is regardless of whether the Barbados Labour Party or the Democratic Labour Party is in power. It is just the way we run our business.
The problem is that when one party is decimated at the polls, the situation is not so pronounced because of the size of the Opposition. But when it is like what we now have where the two sides of the House are almost balanced, the waste of good human resources becomes quite telling.
It is well past the time when we should be engaged in meaningful parliamentary reform.