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Misunderstanding our system of governance

Published: Oct 10, 2013

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Dear Editor,

For years now I have noticed that major consciousness change in our Bahamas is usually the result of copying others rather than careful thought to the introduction or implementation of the same.

If we want to make a new law, we seem to do it by copying similar laws from other jurisdictions.  This is quite alright but it has to be done bearing in mind that the other place had a reason for the idea and the words used.  Often, we will just slavishly copy a paragraph from here and a paragraph from there and in the result what we have is a mess.  Then when we do further changes, it is with reckless abandon.

In the area of governance I am extremely concerned as we appear to have confounded two cardinal principles of the Westminster system to which we subscribe but for which we have a lack of understanding or appreciation of why they are part of the system.

The first is the role of the backbench in Parliament and the other is the operational role of the civil service.

The backbench: As recently as 1992, there was an identifiable backbench in Parliament – i.e., parliamentarians who were members of the governing party but were not ministers or part of the Cabinet.  These backbenchers, although part of the governing party, were not bound by the collective responsibility of Cabinet and were able to cast their votes freely.  These people were often noted for their independence of expression and were often cast as rebels.  Names such as Oscar Johnson Sr., Cadwell Armbrister, Edmund Moxey and Milo Butler Jr. come to mind.

In Parliament, legislation passes by a vote of the majority.  If the governing party has an overwhelming majority and the leader has control of them, he can pass almost anything he wishes.  The opposition is usually more seen than heard and of little effect save at the next election.

Backbenchers served as a much-needed check and balance in a government where often the imbalance of power between the governing party and the opposition was overwhelming.  Their hallmark was their independence despite their allegiance.  Typically they were people who had been passed over for Cabinet positions, often because of perceived lack of ability or seniority, alienation from the existing power structure in the party or even by choice, such as where they wished to continue their everyday endeavors while serving.

Should a government lose a vote when the “whip” is on, it could signal a vote of no confidence in the government.  Any party leader would have to consider these people when making any decisions.  This put reins on the serving leader, who would have to consider what would happen if his backbench voted with the opposition (who could almost certainly be counted on to vote against him).

Hubert Ingraham, after winning in 1992, began the era of what was then called “the Gussie Mae Cabinet”, extending the numbers beyond the 12 or so people hitherto relied on and making the majority of his serving party members ministers or junior ministers (ministers of state) and parliamentary secretaries.  Although the then opposition whined about it at the time, they ensured that this became entrenched by repeating it.  Today, out of the PLP parliamentarians, 16 are ministers, five are junior ministers and three are parliamentary secretaries; two are speaker and deputy speaker.  Then an additional three head government corporations and one is an ambassador.  Only two can truly be called “backbenchers”.

The reason given always was that these people could train in the position so that whenever there was a generational handover they would be prepared.  Utter bunk!  It has also proved very costly as the member’s remuneration is increased by every role he fills – a backdoor methodology of increasing a member’s salary without seeking parliamentary approval to raise the salaries of members to the gullible public.

Over time, we have evolved to a point where it is degrading to be a backbencher.  It is an indication of deficiency.

Instead, governments can now proceed without any checks or balances, save for the next election.  The people can only show their dissatisfaction at that time.  This, no doubt, contributes to the see-saw effect we now see taking place.

I have no doubt that this was done in order to help ensure control by firstly binding them by collective Cabinet responsibility, and secondly by making them so dependent on the increased remuneration that they would not dare challenge the leader.  There are many serving now who made less in the private sector than they now make in government.  This has hampered democracy in our country.

The civil service: In tandem with the increase in the size of the Cabinet has been the neutering of the civil service.  Have you noticed that the staff at any ministry now seems to be operating as a PR arm of the serving minister?  Every action in the ministry is attributed to the minister.  Every story in the paper concerning a ministry is accompanied by a picture of the minister.

Historically, the civil service was a check on ministerial abuse on the one hand and, on the other, it saved many a minister by its non-involvement in politics.  The job of the minister was setting the overall policy of the ministry (in consultation with the senior officers) and ensuring that the leadership in the ministry was competent at what it did.  It also meant that the minister of health did not have to be a doctor or the minister of works an engineer.  In fact, what this ensured was that a particular professional bias would not control decisions at the ministry.  The director and his department are usually the technocrats and the permanent secretary and subordinate staff the administrators, and whatever is necessary.

The friction which constantly existed between the minister and his civil servants was best illustrated in the old English sitcom “Yes, Minister”.  Yes, ministers complained that they often had to take the blame for their civil servants and resented it.  There is an attraction to the thinking that if you are going to take the blame then you should have the power.  However, this is not a part of the Westminster system of government.  That belongs to systems where when one party goes the top civil servants do also.

It was also the job of the minister to give cover to his officials who were mainly anonymous.  This was in the best interest of the system.  It started when the former prime minister declared that civil servants would have to defend themselves and could not take cover from the minister.  This created a reticence on the part of many civil servants who did not consider themselves politicians or lovers of the limelight and eventually they welcomed passing as many functions as possible to the minister.

Now we have the cowboy minister who is an “expert” on his ministry and who appears to be in virtual control.  The result is that ministries are incapable of making plans that go beyond the tenure of the existing minister and in no case more than five years.

I was struck some weeks ago at the prime minister’s response to a question of whether or not he would have a Cabinet shuffle.  He answered that a number of his ministers had bold programs they wanted to implement and for this reason he would not do so now.  It brought me to the realization that today, the ministry truly revolves around the minister.  If you have any appreciation for our system of government, it will be abundantly clear that this is wrong.

– Luther H. McDonald


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