Anyone who follows this blog is probably aware that partisan political commentary of the sort we prefer is not one of the things I do. That’s by design. In the first place, too many people in this nation engage in partisan political commentary, so much so that many of us believe that our governmental institutions have been set up for the benefit of political parties, rather than political parties being instruments designed to navigate and manipulate those governmental institutions. In the second place, partisan discussion is awfully predictable and is therefore ultimately circular and boring. And in the third place: Bahamian political parties — why bother? Why waste the time and the pixels? Because what, really, is the difference among them?
That said, this past week has been fascinating to me, and heartening. Heartening because it marks a change in our democracy, a point at which we are no longer taking the status quo for granted, where we are challenging the expected. Fascinating because of the amount of words and air exercised on condemning the move made by the opposition members in the house of assembly, which has been received in much the same way that heresy was once received by church fathers. How DARE the opposition members in the House of Assembly move a vote of no confidence in the Leader of the Opposition? How DARE they go against the will of the people, who so recently re-ratified Dr. Minnis as the leader of the FNM? How DARE the Governor-General ratify that vote of no confidence and remove Dr. Minnis from his position as Leader of the Opposition? NEVER BEFORE has anything like this happened in the country, the commonwealth, the world &c.,&c.
In an ancient episode of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip, Lucy is kneeling on the ground, paying very close attention to something on the pavement. Her commentary reveals that she believes she is looking at a leaf which has fallen from a tree, and she proceeds to wax eloquent about its journey. Linus is standing nearby, suffering from a stomachache. Charlie Brown asks him what the matter is. Linus explains that the “leaf” is in fact a potato chip. This becomes a theme in the strip, and for the next several episodes Lucy wanders around making ludicrous pronouncements on the world, while Linus and Charlie Brown look on, saying “Ow.”
Some of the reactions to the vote of no confidence in the House and its aftermath have left me saying “Ow”. They reveal just how ignorant many of us are about Bahamian parliamentary procedure, and Bahamian parliamentary history. This is by no means the first time this kind of step has been taken, but the fact that we do not all know this highlights the gaping holes in our public and self education.
Government vs Political Parties
The first thing that hurts my stomach is all the discussion that assumes that the members of the opposition did something wrong, or undemocratic, or illegal, or unprecedented, in taking a vote of no confidence against the Leader of the Opposition. I take particular exception to the line of argument that claims that their action transgressed the “will of the Bahamian people” or the “democratic process”. I can only surmise that the people who hold fast to this view make no distinction between party and government, and in fact believe (incorrectly) that political parties are the foundation of our democracy rather than one of the ways in which the citizenry may enact that democracy.
To that I have two things to say.
One is that democracy is (or should be) a government BY the people (or their representatives) FOR the people as a whole. Political parties are a strategy to unite various groups of people and thereby channel their power, but democracy can work equally where the members of the house of the assembly represent constituencies rather than parties. In fact, until 1953, that was the only way in which individuals were elected to the House. There were so few viable political parties that those who were able to vote voted for individual men who represented districts in the House. To this day, indeed, MPs are addressed by the names of the constituencies they are supposed to represent, not by their own names or their party affiliation or the posts they hold in cabinet. What is pre-eminent in the House is the representative nature of the people who sit there. It is true that they hold their seats as members of political parties, and that to some extent their loyalty must also accrue to the political party on whose ticket and under whose auspices they got elected. But that is not their primary function or purpose, and that should not be their first loyalty. Their first responsibility is to the ordinary Bahamian citizens of whatever stripe and affiliation who live within the borders of their constituencies. That is what democracy is all about.
The other is that there is absolutely nothing democratic in the broad sense about any of the political parties that are currently represented in the Bahamian house of assembly. In fact, the legacy parties (as we are apparently now wont to call the FNM and the PLP) are, for the ordinary Bahamian citizen who is not a member of a political party, about as anti-democratic as you can get. Party decisions are made by delegates and council members, and the most powerful of these individuals are hand-picked by the leader of the party. In the third party, the DNA (correct me if I am wrong), I have yet to be exposed to any evidence that there is a democratic decision-making process; indiviuals appear to become members and representatives by proclamation of the leader or his deputy.
The point I’m getting at is this. If a person wants to go into politics to serve the citizens of The Bahamas, we have so arranged our political business that one has to join a political party. Which party one joins is really a matter of connections, personalities, or revenge. That’s it. Ideology is not a prerequisite—can anyone tell me if any Bahamian political party is, or intends to be, liberal, conservative, nationalistic, progressive, socialist, or fascist? Every political party at the table has elements of most of the above, and mixes them in blissful ignorance most of the time, and when convenient the rest of it. And once one joins the political party, one has to pander to the sensibilities of the leadership, otherwise one will get nowhere. Today’s Bahamian political parties have more in common with professional sports teams than with bodies committed to governance, or with implementers of policy. So all this outrage about the opposition members’ action in the house of assembly rings somewhat hollow. The outrage has very little to do with what an opposition’s role in a democracy should be; rather, it has a whole lot to do with personalities, personal alignments, business partnerships, and team affiliations.
Here’s my take on it. Like Ian Strachan, I am inclined to support no political party in the upcoming general election. How I can achieve that is a matter for another time. My personal political ideology has usually aligned most closely with that of the Progressive Liberal Party. I believe in equality for all, a liberal tenet. I believe in “progressive” ideals such as state regulation of the economy, free health care, free education, wealth redistribution through taxation, clean energy, and governmental ownership of public utilities. I privilege the public good above private profit, and do not believe that things that affect a citizen’s basic quality of life (like electricity, water, inter-island transportation, healthcare or education) should be used as profit-generating avenues for any individual or group of individuals. In this I am opposed to decisions made by both the FNM and the PLP, both of whom have swallowed the lie of privatization without examination or question and are now squirming on its hook. I’m also opposed to certain pronouncements by the DNA, such as the idea that a husband is incapable of raping his wife as they are “one flesh”, or the idea that Bahamians should be given the right to carry handguns at the same time as the death penalty should be mandatory for all murder. I believe in development of local talent and businesses; I do not believe in a “free” market, as free markets are usually only free to those who can afford to pay to erect their own corporate barriers, or to those who became wealthy through the use of free or almost free labour. I believe in controlled foreign investment, in which foreign investment opportunities are designed and regulated so that they give the best outcome for the Bahamian citizenry, rather than offering the fastest, dirtiest way to a quick profit for the investor. I do not believe that foreign investors should be given concessions that no Bahamian will ever get.
When last did any political party outline for the electorate what specifically they believed? When last did any political party take a stand on principle? I’m not talking about cool slogans and bright faces. I’m talking about core beliefs and corresponding actions. You may tell me that the last constitutional amendment exercise was a matter of principle. To that I would answer that any such exercise that is not part of a wider exercise to reform existing laws that continue to create discriminatory conditions between women and men (an exercise that is the entire purview of the members of parliament, by the way) is not a matter of principle.
I do not know what any party’s principles are. How, then, can I make a choice come election time? How can I condemn a move that, if nothing else, shakes up the status quo in such a way that the discussion around this question changes? No one is beyond replacement. The opposition has done an abysmal job for the past four years, and at least some of that responsibility must rest at the feet of the former leader of the oppoistion in the house. The fact that he was ratified in convention by a small group of people who have no allegiance to, or responsibility for, the ordinary Bahamian citizen is not a reason for his position as Leader of the Opposition not to be challenged. The elected members of the house had no confidence in his ability to lead them, and they replaced him. Mrs. Butler-Turner will now have to secure their confidence; otherwise they may be inclined to replace her as well. That is their right, and, perhaps one could argue, their duty, whenever the opposition (or the government, even) fails to do its job. They are our representatives, which goes beyond doing what we WANT them to do. Sometimes the best representation acts against the popular will for the wider good. If nothing else, this move has sent a message to all leaders: if you do not do what is expected of you we can and will replace you. That is one of the dangers, and opportunities, offered to the citizens of democracies.
A Brief Last Word of Opinion
I have no doubt there will be many people who take offence at this post. That’s their right. But I’d like to end by pointing out that the fact that I don’t have a problem with the vote of no confidence means that I agree with it. They are two separate issues. I think that at this stage it was a wasted move. I believe it was inspired by sour grapes and not by the kind of principle about which I’ve just written. I regard it as a political ploy whose long-term outcome is more likely to bring parliamentary oblivion for those involved than any lasting change. Had the move been taken a year ago, or more, it would have been more effective, but all it reveals at this stage is a sort of selfish desperation on the part of Mrs. Butler-Turner’s “supporters” that is unlikely to result in much of note in the long term. The time to make this stand would have been in October 2015, when Butler-Turner’s currency was high because of the hurricane, and Minnis’ was low. The convention, the challenge for leadership there, all of that, I believe to have been wasted energy. Most of all, Butler-Turner’s withdrawal from that process has made this current exercise hollow; had she gone ahead and taken the licking that was coming at convention, at least those who supported her could have felt pride in the attempt. What has happened now is a personal victory but little more. We will not get to see Butler-Turner’s prowess as a Leader of the Opposition, as most of the important bills have been debated already and what will come before the house in the next four months or so will not provide the opportunity to show her abilities. We will not get to see very much of (why?) Branville McCartney’s ability as leader of the opposition in the senate for the same reason. What we are most likely to see is an unholy alliance of individuals against two primary enemies, and I am not sure that the government will be the major target of most of the coming activity. And in this, once again, the Bahamian people will lose.