The clean sweep of the BLP on May 24, 2018, obviously presents the administration with some critical constitutional problems, not least of which is the absence of an official Opposition in Parliament. While the presence of the Opposition in Parliament does not impact the eventual outcome of policy and legislative action, the fact is that the Opposition still has a critical role to play in the Parliament. This is related to the need for scrutiny of Government, contributing to debate and therefore public education, as well as heading and participating in critical parliamentary committees, the most important of which is the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). So although we recognize that given the processes and structures of Westminster that Parliament, unfortunately, does not constitute a “watchful eye”, the presence of an Opposition is important.
Lynette Eastmond’s approach to the issue of the appointment of Opposition Members in Parliament is rooted obviously in a reading of the language of the Constitution and is, therefore, spot on. However, the framers of the Constitution never contemplated the absence of an elected element in the House of Assembly and so the Constitution speaks, in general terms, of the discretionary role of the Governor General under circumstances where he/she is unable to consult with the Opposition or presumably where the Opposition fails to act.
We need to move beyond the language of the Constitution and address issues of the spirit of the supreme law of the land. It is that spirit, rather than the text of the Constitution, that clearly undergirds the Prime Minister’s position that some constitutional change is required to ensure that at a minimum, the Opposition ought to be represented in the Parliament, even if in that rubber stamp of an Upper Chamber.
Beyond specifically addressing the absence of an elected opposition in the Parliament, it is time for Caribbean jurisdictions to speak to the inadequacies of our electoral model which, in recent years, have tended to produce very lopsided parliaments. This is indisputable when we consider that in The Bahamas, the opposition is barely able to mount a decent opposition to the FNM. The same can be said of Antigua and Barbuda, and the story has already been told of Grenada, where short of a revolt of parliamentarians, Grenadians will be subjected to one-party rule essentially for ten years unless elections are called early in this term. Added to this mix, is Barbados.
The 1998 Constitutional Reform Commission headed by Sir Henry Forde offered some possibilities for this country. Acknowledging that the first-past-the-post system had created stable Government in the country and that its opposite the proportional representation system tended to produce the converse, the Commission said given the tendency of the electoral model to exaggerate the support of the winning political party by giving it a bonus, whilst penalizing losing political parties in terms of seat share, there was always that distinct possibility that Parliament could be a one party show and this has come to pass.
The Commission, therefore, suggested that two Senators should be appointed by the Head of State after consultation with the leader of any political party which was supported in the elections by the votes of at least ten per cent of all those who voted and such persons as the Head of State considers ought to be consulted. In the event that no political party acquired ten per cent of the popular vote, then the Head of State would appoint six and the other three would be appointed after consultation with persons whom the Head of State feels ought to be consulted. This would avoid the constitutional crises which emerged in St Vincent and the Grenadines after 1989 and the uncertainties in Grenada, given the special role ascribed to the opposition under the constitution.
These are, of course, very worthy and certainly progressive (given what currently obtains) recommendations. But they are insufficient. A much deeper look at the electoral system is required and while we do not wish to jettison the system and replace it with the proportional representation system, we can borrow from the actual experiences of other Commonwealth jurisdictions as well as take a critical look at the recommendations of other constitutional reform commissions in the Commonwealth Caribbean.
I am not of course suggesting that Caribbean states should not consider proportional representation, for it does provide for a level of fairness and would reduce the historical tendency towards distortions and exclusions. But it seems to be dead in the water.
There are, however, other useful alternatives that can enhance representativeness of this institutional pillar of Westminster. One such noteworthy recommendation can be sourced from the report of the constitutional reform commission of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. In reviewing the operations of the electoral system in the country, the 25-member commission recommended that the legislative branch of government should be wholly elected on the basis of the traditional first-past-the-post electoral system and a system of proportional representation based on a party list of candidates, in other words, a mixed member majoritarian system (MMM). In its view, the mixed method approach would provide for a greater representativeness of the people while removing any possibility that a single party parliament would occur.
Indeed, supporters of the MMM system argue that the system offers the best of both worlds, that is, the direct accountability of members to the constituencies in which they are elected, and the proportional representation of diverse partisan preferences which increases the quality of democratic representation and equality.
I find it therefore rather interesting that the generous offer of the Prime Minister to the Opposition with respect to the appointment of two members to the Senate would be rejected by at least one longstanding member of the political party. Indeed, yes, a spirited Opposition can be mounted outside of Parliament, and yes, the Senate is a rubber stamp. However, the Opposition can use its presence in the Parliament to good use while attempting to rebuild its shattered institution and image in the society. It would, thus, be a colossal mistake to act ungraciously in the face of such generosity.
It would, of course, be useful to consider the total revamp of the Senate itself. So like New Zealand and Australia, the Upper Chamber can be reformed to make it into that watchful eye. But in this, it can engage in the kind of obstruction that is unhelpful. In Australia, it is elected for a six-year term by proportional representation and experience and history has shown that only on a rare occasion was it controlled by the government.
Moreover, in an attempt to ensure that Government answers to the citizens, the Prime Minister has suggested that she will institute question time. This would most definitely improve the quality of debate in Parliament as well as engender greater accountability of Members of Parliament.
Combined, these by no means constitute taking a hammer to Westminster in Barbados, but they are incremental important steps in the right direction.
Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus.