From time to time, the no-confidence motion crops up, providing an opportunity for the parliamentary opposition to criticize governmental action without the slightest opportunity to be successful. That is just one of the cold hard facts of Westminster politics. Accustomed as we have become to US politics and the shenanigans of congressional and POTUS (President of the United States), many have articulated the view that the Caribbean can well do with the openness of the US governance arrangements in which elected members of congress can openly oppose their leadership without fear of being removed from parliament, that cherished congressional committee, or because of the government falling.
Yes, there are the potential long-term repercussions of non-selection to those committees, whether ad hoc, standing or special; there are the political implications for future support at the district or state level, but government limps along even with a shut-down; the latest of which occurred in December 2018/January 2019 over the funding bill as US president Donald Trump demands his $5 billion dollars to build his wall.
But the government remains in place. And there are those of us who ask – is this what we really wish – stalemate in a country or countries on the brink of financial disaster? Of course not! But can we really afford elections with all the attendant cost prior to five years or even four?
And what ought to be the grounds for a no-confidence motion? Can it really be on the grounds of some frivolous and silly notion that one is opposed to being ‘yes’ men? We read and heard that Charrandas Persaud was tired of toeing the party line. But such are the conventions of Westminster that permit both the need for toeing of the party line (strong party discipline and responsible government), and this cunning coup, this political stealth, by a single individual determined to bring down the government on his own.
Did Persaud, a government backbencher, ever publicly utter a disloyal word; was there any hint at intra-party dissent or coalition dissent, and did the verbal evasion amidst the public and parliamentary defiance that occurred thereafter convince? Yes, Persaud did point to what he saw as the neglect of his rural constituencies and perhaps this was just enough to justify his revolt.
I have briefly reviewed all the Official Reports of the Proceedings and Debates of the National Assembly from January 10, 2018 to December 2018 and found no evidence of disaffection with the government from Charrandas Persaud. Indeed, the following contributions showed his enthusiastic support for government:
Protected Disclosures Bill No.12 of 2017. January 18, 2018. Persaud lauded the bill and highly commend the Bill to the House for its passage.Strong support of the Cybercrime Bill on July 20th 2018.In 2017, in defending the Government’s budget, Persaud argued that the government “is taking longer (to give Guyanese the good life) than expected because of the mess the administration inherited in 2015 and is still trying to clean up.” Not only did he support the government’s position on the sugar industry, old age pension and a tax amnesty, but Persaud noted a number of developments that have been taking shape in Berbice under the Coalition administration. That is the same region that, in his support for the 2018 no-confidence motion, Persaud claimed had not seen significant development. Why the shift? So, did he expect the mess to be managed in just over three years? Amazing!
Was revolt then the best solution? Because, after all, in the context of the Guyanese government, it would have been irrevocably final. Was there nothing that would have, in fact, discouraged the opposition to the party line and should such dissent be only manifested in the support for the no-confidence motion? Was the government charged with incompetence? Was the government charged with corruption? Was it charged with high-handedness? Was the government charged with sloth? Was the government charged with economic mismanagement? These, to my mind, would be the most egregious behaviours justifying the highest form of defection in the form of dissent in the context of a no-confidence motion brought by the opposition.
By now, all who are politically interested, and certainly those who vie for political office in our system ought to know that to do so means that we sign up for the confidentiality rule. This also means siding with your party even when you dislike the final decision and this is especially true of the cabinet. We all wish to believe that in the context of Westminster there is genuine debate at Cabinet level and everyone is given the opportunity to articulate their position and, if possible, to change the outlook of the minority or even the majority.
Even outside of Cabinet one would hope that discussions occur and consensus is achieved. And I would expect this to be the case particularly in countries where government operates only by a razor slim majority which, to my mind, is not even a working majority. As it was under the previous administration, the 2015 coalition would have always found it difficult to govern.
That it is possible for members of the ruling administration to feel jaded, out of the loop and discounted, particularly in a context where the administration holds a massive parliamentary majority and as such can manipulate members, is entirely possible. Indeed, many parliamentarians across the Caribbean have acknowledged their dissatisfaction with the political leadership in such an environment. But for such disaffection to go undetected in a context of a slim working majority is really shocking and speaks to the inadequacies of the parliamentary and political party leadership. Westminster is, after all, no Mister; it is a Monster as Matthew Bishop so described.
That the Guyana coalition government was clearly caught napping is indisputable. There seems to have been no outrage expressed within government camps; the Speaker seems to have been out of touch with the feelings on the ground; a look at the face of the leader of the minority partner in the coalition tells it all, shock and dismay. But how is this possible? Were there no fire alarms in the last three years?
There was, as far as I am aware, no attempt to avoid the debate. This needs to be applauded given the other examples across the Caribbean and in Guyana itself. We should recall the prorogation of parliament in St. Kitts-Nevis and Grenada as well as Guyana.
Was there just political naivety in Guyana? Remember that the early 2015 election was itself fuelled by the then opposition, now government attempt to move a no-confidence motion. This was blocked by resorting to the constitutional loophole of prorogation of parliament given what the ruling administration anticipated would have been the sure defeat of the minority government. But that was beyond question as the government was a minority one, yes, single party, but still a minority.
This extremely rare event in Westminster in the Caribbean raises a number of questions. Beyond issues of governmental adequacies (inadequacies), beyond questions of discernment of discontent, the recent no-confidence motion in Guyana raises a number of important questions about our institutions. Not least among them are questions pertaining to the functioning of our institutions. Is this the way in which government must be unmade? Can we ensure greater stability and fewer surprises if the dates of elections are in fact fixed? Should one man or woman really hold the fate of a government in his or her hands?
(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus.)