Saint Lucia
This article was added by the user . TheWorldNews is not responsible for the content of the platform.

Is the Modern Political Party Actually Opposed to the Masses of the People?

The continuing saga over the valuation, purchasing, and selling of public land and whether the the House opposition is being marginalised, silenced, and bullied by the super-majority party is symptomatic of a political crisis confronting our country. It is best defined as a political system out of tune with our contemporary circumstances, lacking as it does the necessary checks and balances, accountability, transparency, and justificatory approaches. The popular view is that politicians lack integrity, that they are generally corrupt, missing no opportunity plunder the state’s resources and enrich themselves.

During his National Library Week address before students of the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College, Rick Wayne cited an observation by Frederick Bastiat: “When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in society, overtime they create a legal system that authorises it, and a moral code thar glorifies it.”  

Sadly, our once upon a time bastions of democracy have lately become deaf, blind and silent. They have permitted obvious partisan rhetoric, half-truths, and mumbo jumbo, to dominate such discourse as there is. If only tacitly, they have endorsed self-absorbed politicians to tinker with our Constitution, even as they show less and less respect for transparency and accountability in public affairs. 

Recently we witnessed a back and forth between Castries Central MP and Opposition leader Allen Chastanet that centered on the sale of government lands to a private individual. Questions were raised regarding the value of the property, the decision to sell, the process involved and so on. The particular debate closed with the Speaker demanding first, an apology from the Opposition Leader, and when that was not forthcoming making an order that would prevent the Opposition Leader from attending House meetings for the foreseeable future. As for we the people, most of us were left with more questions than answers.

It is no secret that MPs Chastanet and Frederick have been at war for several years, that they have matters pending before the courts. As if that were not bad enough, the Speaker was several  weeks forced by a judge to reconsider his efforts at placing the Opposition Leader before the House Privileges Committee, and to pay costs amounting to close to $200,000. A wide section of the public, at any rate, judging by their calls to talk shows and by what they say via social media, seem convinced there should have been greater accountability and decision making by the Speaker of the House. Many are of the view that the sole purpose of parliamentary debates at this time is for the 15-2 House to score political points regardless of consequences.    

The result of debates such as the latest of the sale of public lands, should not depend on predictable partisan ayes. Such matters should come before select committees comprising individuals with at least an appearance of independence. This would allow relevant ministers to provide information on decisions taken and permit the examination of witnesses. While not every government decision should be subjected to special inquiry, certain decisions call for more than echoed speeches that reveal nothing of value and provide good reason for widespread speculation.  

Irrespective of the doctrine of Individual Ministerial Responsibility, where ministers must take responsibility for the operation of their ministries, there is also a requirement for our public servants to provide justificatory approaches for their decisions. It is understandable, why within our hyper-partisan environment our public officials may shy away from their responsibilities.   However, in broadening and deepening our democracy, our public officials must demonstrate respect for the people’s trust.  

The size of our parliament has never allowed for a seamless transposition of the UK Model of Select Committees with a significant number of back benchers, opposition members and individuals whose political views are not the sole criteria for their decision-making. As much as UK Parliamentarians tow the party line, there are frequent exceptions to the rule. Never mind the contrary talk, there is a view within our mimicry of the Westminster system that the party always comes first, and is at all times infallible.

The current composition of the House makes it difficult for select committees to be viewed as impartial. The time has come for us to further consider the inclusion of public officials and regular citizens  within our parliamentary committees, to democratise and provide higher levels of accountability and transparency. The progressive recommendations of the Constitutional Reform Commission in relation to Saint Lucia’s Public Accounts Committee comes to mind.

Should the quest of Members of Parliament, particularly the parliamentary opposition, due to the nature of our system be interested in finding answers to the current land controversy and other government decisions, there is Section 14 of the House Standing Orders that provides the opportunity to question minister. Albeit this seems to be a staple in other parliamentary democracies such as Trinidad & Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda among others, our democracy seems to be content with on-the-run answers to barely informed media personnel.  Still on the matter of the Bannanes land sale: Where is the evidence that the people’s property was sold at the best price? Did the board act on its own or was coerced? 

It should always be clear that public officials and politicians did not abuse their authority. There should be no room for the worst speculations. But when there is cause for concern, related questions should be answered in the interest of public accountability and not treated as assaults on an MP’s good reputation. The noise from the Bannanes debate is counter-productive in more than one respect.

The claims by the House opposition, that it is being marginalized by a 15-2 House and a Speaker that has too often spoken words that would’ve been better left unspoken points to a deeper crisis of the unrepresentative nature of our democracy. It is not uncharted territory that the first-past-the-post system of elections, with the winner taking all, is meant to skew the composition of our parliament. Consequently, it allows governments more parliamentary seats albeit there may be a slight difference between their vote margins. On some rare occasions, a political party can win the government but lose the popular vote. Therefore, opposition political parties are not fully representative within parliament and because there is a distortion of the electoral results it cannot adequately represent the wishes of the people.

Political scientist Professor Cynthia Barrow-Giles is on the button when she says that “in parliamentary democracy, an electoral system should create a parliament which reflects the trend of opinion within the electorate.” As for Peter Jamadar, he has pointed out the most fundamental defect of the system is “how it regularly and repeatedly fails to create a parliament in which the image of the feelings of the nation are truly reflected. There is the general tendency to exaggerate the representatives of the largest party and to reduce that of the smaller ones.” Consider the Saint Lucia elections of 1997 (16-1), Saint Vincent’s in 1989 and 1998, among others within the Commonwealth Caribbean.

The disheartening reality is that the transformation required has been mired in partisan discourse. Opposition parties despise the electoral system and are quick to lament its shortcomings—but only when they are its victims. Allen Chastanet’s indirect calls for electoral reforms because of UWP’s unrepresented nature is an element of this broader view. However, one must recall the deafening silence on the matter during his time as prime minister. It is not difficult to understand why, more and more, the people are becoming disenchanted with our politicians.

Quite obviously, a bipartisan and national approach is required to finally address issues of electoral reform and wider governance issues. It is perhaps why CLR James lamented in his   Party Politics and the West Indies: “The modern political party, whatever its policy or program, the moment it takes hold of any government, whatever its democratic intentions, becomes a system and a method and an organisation which is opposed to the masses of the people.”

 The Leader of the Opposition may well have a point when he charges that Section 43 (6) of the HOA may be unconstitutional. It notes: “If such member [whose conduct is grossly disorderly] be suspended under any provisions of this Order, his suspension shall last until determined by the House.” Therefore, if the House passes an “indefinite suspension” of an elected member, the courts may interpret this as a removal of the MP.  It will therefore be unconstitutional since the Constitution, under Section 32 & 34, specifies the eligibility and the grounds for removal of legislators. They include absence from the sittings of the House, removal of citizenship, imprisonment, vacating of seat and so on. Nothing in the preceding suggests disorderly conduct or even allegations of untruths, proved or not, rises to grounds for removal. It is unfortunate that it required a filing of a motion before the court for the realisation that this would have been unconstitutional.

There are some however, who continue to reference the HOA as the final arbiter on all matters parliamentary. They seem not to recognize the Standing Orders are subject to the Constitution. Now, while the House can regulate its own proceedings, they cannot operate outside the Constitutional parameters. Not only is a major overhaul of the Standing Orders needed to ensure it is in conformity with the Constitution, as part of parliamentary reform, but a deeper consideration needs be given legal, political, and social tools at the disposal of legislators and the public when they are dissatisfied with the conduct of elected officials, and where such conduct may also have sought to abuse the privileges of parliament.

On too many occasions parliamentarians spew obvious fabrications behind the veil of parliamentary privilege. Elected officials must be more responsible. Beyond the protection of the Act, there is a greater moral, political, and ethical responsibility to the people of the country. Many cases across the Commonwealth Caribbean have shown us that sections like the abovementioned can be challenged before the courts. Further, individuals can also utilise statements made in the House as an evidentiary basis for claims against the government. The privileges afforded MPs are not without limit!