By Sir Ronald Sanders
BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, Monday June 4, 2018 – In the wake of the clean sweep by the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) of all the seats in general elections on May 24 for the Barbados House of Representatives, the problem of no parliamentary opposition has rightly become a matter for wider discussion in the Caribbean and farther abroad.
This development in Barbados, that occasioned the unseating of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) which had presided over the steady decline of the economy for 10 years, followed a similar circumstance in Grenada just two months before where the ruling New National Party (NNP) won all the seats.
One country without an opposition leader in parliament is cause enough for concern, but when the situation occurs in a second country, it provokes debate about how to ensure that no Caribbean nation is deprived of an opposition in the House of Representatives in future general elections.
Before going any further in this commentary, note should be taken that there were no credible claims of elections-fixing in either the Grenada or Barbados polls. The results of the elections in both countries demonstrated the free will of the majority electors in each constituency to put in office the candidates and parties for which they voted.
In such a democratic process, parties that win all the seats in the House of Representatives cannot be blamed for the failures of their opponents, nor can they be reproached for the non-representation of an opposition in parliament. Political parties do not campaign in elections to win some of the seats; they have to campaign to win all on the assumption that they will lose a few. When any political party loses all the seats, it is because the electorate is punishing it for very poor performance.
In the aftermath of the elections results in Grenada and Barbados, suggestions have been made that, in the absence of a parliamentary opposition, the media should become the opposition to the government, and, if not the media, the people.
These are extravagant ideas but neither of them is practical or desirable. With regard to the amorphous “people”, it should be recalled that the people of a country comprise not only persons opposed to the government but also the same voters that elected it. The term “people” and its identity should not, and cannot, be high jacked in the name of opposition.
As for the media, in every nation the media has an important role as an objective reporter and fair analyser of political events, including the conduct of government and opposition political parties, but it is not the media’s function to be an opposition. When any of the media assume an opposition role, it ceases to serve the interest of society as a reliable and credible source of objective information and analysis and becomes, instead, a political tool.
It has also been suggested by one writer that since the Constitutions of Grenada and Barbados provide that the Governor-General appoints the Leader of the Opposition, that authority should be exercised to cure the problem. However, the Governor-General can only appoint a Leader of the Opposition from “among the members of the House of Representatives in opposition to the Government”. In the absence of any elected opposition person in the House, the Governor-General can appoint no one to the post, and the problem remains.
Having said all that, even electorates that obliterate political parties at the polls prefer that a parliamentary opposition should exist. Not only is it good for democracy that opposition voices and divergent arguments should be heard on legislation and policy that affect the nation, but the parliamentary Leader of the Opposition has important constitutional roles, the most vital of which is to head the public accounts committee that keeps a check on government spending and holds the executive to fiscal responsibility.
In cases, where parliament is comprised of two chambers – the elected House of Representatives and the appointed Senate which reviews legislation – the Leader of the Opposition also has the responsibility to appoint Senators who will offer opposing arguments to government positions.
All this is good for democracy; good for keeping governments accountable; and good for helping electorates to make informed judgements about policies that affect them. These debates also allow the public to assess the quality of the representatives in parliament and to determine the value of the policies they advocate.
How then could a parliamentary opposition be achieved in circumstances where only one political party is elected to all the seats in the House of Representatives? The new Prime Minister of Barbados and leader of the BLP, Mia Mottley, may have, in part, showed the way.
Recognising, that the absence of a parliamentary opposition is unhelpful to democracy and that, in any event, the BLP won 22% of the votes cast in the general elections, Mottley has proposed to amend the Constitution to allow the party securing the second largest number of votes in the election to name two members for appointment to the Senate.
But, while this manoeuvre would give the opposition party a voice in the reviewing chamber, it would still leave opposition parties with no voice in the main House, and the constitutional functions of the role of the Leader of the Opposition would also remain unfulfilled.
However, Mottley’s idea could be the basis for a constitutional solution to the issue across the Caribbean.
Recognising that clean sweeps could happen in every country, resulting in no parliamentary opposition in the House of Representatives, legislatures might now consider constitutional amendments that would automatically give a parliamentary seat to the party that secures the second highest number of votes in general elections, in the event that only representatives of one political party are elected to the House.
In this way, Caribbean countries could be assured that, even as the will of the majority of the electorate is respected, there will be a Leader of the Opposition, voicing opposition concerns and carrying out the constitutional functions of the office.
The winning political party and its supporters will lose nothing, while democracy in Caribbean societies continue to be served.
The seed that Miss Mottley has planted should germinate across the region.
Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the US and the OAS. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto.