Celebrating the Bahamian democratic experience
Some of the frustrations with our political life are understandable, many of which are shared by those in frontline politics who daily manage the complex matters of state with which most of us would prefer not to contend.
Parliamentary debates are sometimes sterile and unimaginative. The lack of preparation by some parliamentarians is an embarrassment for themselves and those they represent.
Yet, we need to place our frustrations within context, historically and geographically. Familiarity often breeds contempt. Yet, it is unfamiliarity with our parliamentary system that has bred contempt for the institutions and practices that provide for democratic stability.
Many in academia and journalism, and even in Parliament, are woefully ill-informed about the fundamentals of our parliamentary system. There is a great deal of erroneous information transmitted by these opinion leaders.
The lack of knowledge by those who should know better by virtue of their profession helps to fuel the pining for certain elements of the American system of government despite the lack of in-depth familiarity with why that system was developed and how it functions.
This unfamiliarity has spawned wistfulness for a system that even some of its founders may have come to believe is in need of significant reform in light of a different America today than at its founding.
The accretion of powers within the United States Senate which allows a single senator to place lengthy holds on or filibuster certain legislation are profoundly undemocratic practices in what is often self-servingly called the world’s greatest deliberative body.
The American founders might also be horrified by the army of corporate lobbyists who have been adept at finagling gigantic tax loopholes, outsized subsidies, lax regulation and wink and nod legislation. This system has cost America trillions at the expense of social protections such as an infant mortality rate of which the world’s greatest power should be embarrassed.
Both the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government refused despite warnings to provide oversight – including legislation – that would have regulated OTC derivatives and other fanciful financial instruments. This historic failure helped to ignite a global economic meltdown, crippling the housing market, life savings and prospects for millions in the middle class in the U.S. alone.
Most of those who helped create this disaster escaped responsibility. It is baffling when so-called progressives at home call for the adoption of a more America-styled system supposedly to check the abuses of power. Politicians do not have a monopoly on such abuse. Unchecked financial interests are also toxic to the political system.
If America is the prime model for those Bahamians who want a reformed political system based on that model, they have some explaining to do in light of the failures of that country’s political system.
Despite the common misperception, ours is really not a Westminster system of government. We have a written constitution which Britain does not, and a number of the customs and traditions used in the much larger British parliamentary system are not germane to and are unworkable in our context. With a 650-member House of Commons compared to our 41-member House of Assembly, our practice of parliamentary democracy is necessarily different.
However, our system is derived from the British parliamentary tradition which has enjoyed significant success including stability and resourcefulness over many centuries. With not even a half a century of majority rule we are still familiarizing ourselves with our parliamentary system and democratic politics.
The Bahamian system
Still, we have done quite well as a democracy since 1967. In rapid succession we produced a number of firsts having thrown the major parties out of office after 25 then 10 then five years. We have done so including surviving two elections with questionable results – 1962 and 1987 – with little to no violence.
Our system is resilient, anchored in a constitutional framework and a rule of law stronger than the personalities and parties who may hold legislative and executive power for a period. We often confuse the current occupants of high office with the actual nature and powers inherent in those offices.
Some of this confusion takes the form of asking whether the prime minister has too much power as granted by the constitution. Interestingly, this school of thought gains currency when more powerful leaders are in office such as Sir Lynden Pindling and Hubert Ingraham. This was much less a concern during the weaker prime ministership of Perry Christie.
Curiously, many of those who have advanced this line of thinking while in opposition did not act on their convictions during their time in government.
The question about the prime minister’s power is a part of a larger question about the scope and nature of the powers granted to officeholders, particularly in the executive and legislative spheres. It is often discussed in the language of the balance of power and checks and balances.
Our constitution provides numerous checks such as the provision that executive authority is held by the cabinet of The Bahamas, not singularly by the prime minister, a fact that seems to escape many commentators. It also provides for the removal of a prime minister by his parliamentary colleagues.
All democratic systems wrestle with how much power to afford elected leaders, balancing sufficient power to get things done with checks on those powers to limit potential abuse. That singular democratic impulse borne from the experience of time and various places has given rise to varying systems such as those of Britain and the U.S.
Before being mesmerized by the supposed greater genius of the American political enterprise, more of us may well examine the Bahamian democratic experience and the rationale underpinning parliamentary democracy. Then we may more fully appreciate the genius of our system, which, while always in need of reform, has gotten the essentials right and offers more flexibility and built-in resources of which many remain blissfully ignorant and blithely uninformed.