The Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP) made a welcome return to the House of Assembly today, ending a near two-month-old boycott to protest Speaker Michael Carrington’s decision not to step aside temporarily as presiding officer, pending the determination by the House Privileges Committee of an ethics-related matter against him.
The Opposition filed the matter after the High Court had made an order against Mr Carrington in a case involving his relationship with an elderly client, in his capacity as a practising attorney-at-law. Mr Carrington, a Queen’s Counsel, was ordered to pay up just over $200,000 in outstanding monies that represented the proceeds from the sale of a property which he had handled for the client years before.
Notwithstanding the ethical issues raised, especially since the ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP) had made ethics in politics a major theme of its 2013 general election campaign, the order against Mr Carrington also presented a political opportunity for the Opposition to apply additional pressure on the Government, given its slim parliamentary majority and the many challenges it is grappling with.
Applying pressure on a Government is the stuff Opposition politics in our Westminster system of democracy is made of. The Opposition’s job is not to make the Government’s job easy, but to seize every opportunity where the Government’s weakness is exposed to gain a political advantage. This reflects a natural competition for state power between Opposition and Government which the Westminster system allows.
Opposition Leader Mia Mottley, therefore, cannot be faulted for doing her job. While some critics may say the boycott was a futile exercise, there are some signs it did have a beneficial impact. It did help to sensitize Barbadians to the need to hold public officials, especially elected representatives, to a high standard of conduct where they are above suspicion.
Listening to the discussion on the talk shows and the places where ordinary people congregate, it is clear, coming out of this episode, that Barbadians are beginning to demand a higher standard of conduct from their representatives than before. In a sense, it can be said we are at a turning point in our politics. Whereas before it was generally a case of “anything goes”, that no longer seems to be the case.
Opposition politics sometimes involves the use of dramatic actions to get certain points across. Boycotts, which are used the world over, effectively serve this purpose. Lest it be forgotten, the late David Thompson, when he was Opposition Leader prior to the change of Government in the 2008 general election, also used a boycott of House sittings to protest and mobilize public support against what he saw as the unfair treatment of the then DLP Opposition.
Perhaps it is an opportune time to revisit the ruling DLP’s 2008 general election promise to introduce a Ministerial Code Of Conduct. This promise, along with a Freedom Of Information Act, have not yet materialized. It is important that the DLP acts on both promises because they represent key building blocks of an improved governance where there is greater transparency and accountability so necessary for a healthy democracy.
Given the BLP’s stance, they too ought to signal their commitment to a Ministerial Code Of Conduct which, we would argue, should be expanded to cover all parliamentarians and senior public officials.
The Privileges Committee has not yet made public its determination of the case brought against Mr Carrington, who subsequently paid the client the monies which were due. Barbados no doubt looks forward to reading the report whenever it is released. We do not expect it will be unduly harsh.
Having made its point, the Opposition should focus its energies now on the people’s business. Before the end of this month, the important Estimates Of Revenue And Expenditure Debate is expected to begin. The ears of Barbadians will be glued to the proceedings for insights into the state of the economy and its prospects for the coming year, given the severe pressures the crisis of recent years has placed on ordinary Barbadians.
Austerity-exhausted Barbadians are yearning for another approach to what the DLP Government has been offering. As the political alternative in our system of Government, it is the Opposition’s role to articulate this “other path”.
Will two clearly defined visions of Barbados emerge during the coming Estimates Debate? In this regard, the eyes of Barbadians will be more focused on the Opposition than the Government. Against this backdrop, the Opposition’s decision to call off the boycott is welcome.
Now it’s time for Miss Mottley and her team to focus on the bigger issue of articulating the kind of Barbados they want to create in the future. Such a vision, if it captures the imagination of Barbadians and clearly differentiates the BLP from the DLP, will pay handsome political dividends down the road.