Unsteady groundThe role of the backbencher in an at times petty and immature democracy
Pineridge MP Frederick McAlpine must be feeling increasingly isolated within the circles of his own party for saying publicly what many in the public have been saying about the Minnis administration’s first year in office, and that is that many people are not feeling their government.
In making an honest assessment, McAlpine, a backbencher, was well within his right. It is indeed important and refreshing to have some members of the governing party in Parliament who do not see it as their primary job to be a cheerleader for the prime minister and all that the government is doing.
A strong backbench is vital to our democracy, but the governing party, at the same time, must exercise party discipline. This is precisely the balance that needs to be struck. The question thus arises: How far is too far for a member to go in repeated shots at his party?
Since the Free National Movement’s election a year ago, McAlpine has resisted demands to toe the line when others in the party have ignored and defended certain missteps and outright nonsense.
Back in February after Speaker of the House of Assembly Halson Moultrie spat out a series of dishonorable and disparaging statements from his seat, McAlpine expressed frustration and concern that “honorable men and women” in the House of Assembly would “display such dishonorable conduct”.
During his speech, Moultrie attacked Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) Leader Philip Brave Davis, former Chief Clerk of the House Maurice Tynes and PLP Chairman Fred Mitchell. While he did not support a vote of no confidence in the speaker brought by the opposition, McAlpine decried the “all-time low” to which Parliament had descended.
He expressed worries that the House of Assembly had a new cast, but the people were seeing the same poor behavior. Other FNM colleagues, meanwhile, turned their daggers solely toward the opposition, condemning Englerston MP Glenys Hanna-Martin for defying the speaker.
Later, after the government signed heads of agreement with Oban Energies for an oil refinery and storage project on Grand Bahama, the MP charged that the government appeared to be in a desperate state for investment.
“We are losing credibility with our supporters and the Bahamian people based on our performance. However, we have an opportunity to fix it,” McAlpine said.
His observation was confirmed in a widely publicized poll by Bahamian market and opinion research firm, Public Domain, showing that the optimism felt by many Bahamians after the FNM’s victory last year was “dissipating quickly” and a growing number of people feel the country is headed in the wrong direction.
Last month, McAlpine was critical of Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis, who made another unfortunate and ill-considered statement to reporters. When asked when he would name a chief justice, Minnis asked the media: “Which is a priority to you: your lights going off, or you getting a CJ? Which one is more important to you?”
McAlpine rightly observed that Bahamians should not have to choose whether their electricity is on or whether the position of a substantive chief justice is filled.
“The reality is that we are a government, and we must be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. “We want light but, equally so, we would like to have a substantive chief justice.”
No prime minister likes being criticized – not by the media or anyone else. So, to be criticized by an FNM appears to have agitated Minnis, who still comes off as insecure in his leadership, notwithstanding the fact that he faced intense internal opposition within his party ahead of the general election last year and went on to lead the FNM to a magnificent win.
Recently, Minnis said members of the FNM should not be attacking one another in the media and criticizing the government’s work.
“We should not attack each other in the press,” the prime minister admonished. “We should not be public critics of our government’s work. In doing so, we give aid to the PLP.”
But there is an important difference between unrelenting, malicious assault against one’s party and honest, sober assessment of its performance by someone on the backbench.
In early April when Elsworth Johnson, the minister of state for legal affairs, publicly criticized the prime minister for his failure to select a chief justice, he faced backlash in FNM circles.
Johnson eventually recognized that, as a Cabinet minister, he ought to have communicated his concerns privately.
He apologized, although his criticisms were and are still valid. Minnis has still not filled the post.
But McAlpine is under no obligation to sit quietly and support every statement or policy decision from the government.
While Minnis did not call McAlpine’s name when he admonished FNMs not to criticize the government publicly, many who have been following public events viewed it as an obvious shot at the Pineridge MP, who has been most vocal in calling out the Minnis administration.
Speaking to the media recently, McAlpine said constructive criticism does not make one an enemy of his or her party.
“We criticize our children, our organization, but we don’t do it for their detriment, we do it for the betterment,” McAlpine said.
In a petty and immature democracy, criticisms of one’s party could lead to political ostracism, however.
When the Free National Movement won the general election last year – capturing 35 of the 39 seats in Parliament – the concern we had amidst the national jubilation was about the impact such a large majority could have on the democratic process.
The four opposition members of Parliament have struggled in their role, primarily because they – with the exception of Exumas and Ragged Island MP Chester Cooper – were the faces of an administration that became despised by many Bahamians because of its abusive actions and a wholesale violation of the trust the Bahamian people placed in the PLP five years earlier.
The backbench, meanwhile, remains weak. Backbenchers in the main do not seem to understand their role. They generally do not offer strong contributions to debates in the House. Many do not appear well-researched when they contribute. Their performance is, at times, cringe-worthy.
They appear to view their role as being strong defenders of the prime minister, the FNM and all that the government is doing. They are intent on toeing the party line, as opposed to offering considered input into measures presented by the government. This is not the role of backbenchers as envisioned by the Westminster model of government adopted by our democracy.
In 2009, The UK Guardian reported The Commons Speaker John Bercow’s pledge to increase the role and influence of backbench MPs.
“If there is any one measurement by which I would want my time as speaker to be assessed, it is that the backbench MP felt, and emphatically was, more significant in the House than he or she was before I had the incredible honor of being dragged to the chair. That is my personal agenda,” Bercow said.
We imagine that McAlpine will continue to be seen in party circles as a nuisance or a renegade, and perhaps even a traitor, but his constructive criticisms of the Minnis administration demonstrate that he understands his role as a backbencher.
With such a large Cabinet – the majority of those elected were appointed to Cabinet – and a small opposition, the voices of those on the backbench are vital.
When parliamentary democracy is functioning the way it should, backbenchers serve as a further check on the excessive power of the government.
They are a strong arm of a governing party, serving as its conscience.
They help to ensure that their party’s ideology is being observed in the various actions taken by the government.
While backbenchers might not be successful in rallying against policies or killing legislation they view as harmful measures, they play a part in holding the government to account.
McAlpine appears to understand that it is not just the role of the opposition – and of the media – to keep the government accountable; it is also the role of those on the backbench who have no obligation to abide by the principle of collective responsibility.
This is the beauty of our democracy, if it is functioning in the manner intended.
If McAlpine or any other member gets to the point where they feel their party is not abiding by the principles and respecting the ideology that holds it together, then resignation – or crossing the floor – is an option.
But McAlpine told us that is nowhere in his current thinking.
“I have no intention of leaving the party that was built on democracy. Have we forgotten Sir Cecil Wallace-Whitfield, Maurice Moore, Arthur Foulkes? These were persons that were ostracized for speaking out,” said McAlpine, evoking memories of a time gone by when freedom fighters took principled positions.
“The Free National Movement is built on freedom of speech and expression of speech.”
McAlpine said he’s not concerned by any backlash that has come and might come down the road. “I stand up to bullies, so if they’re going to politically bully me, I’ll stand up. Sometimes I feel like they’re seeking to intimidate me, but I’m not the one,” he said.
There really ought not be anything earth-shattering about what McAlpine has been doing, but in our political dispensation, when everyone is expected to sing from their party’s hymn book, it appears revolutionary to some and treacherous to others.
Indeed, the role of the backbench has been so watered down in our parliamentary democracy that it often appears non existent.
By the same token, if McAlpine is unable to find that he is pleased generally with how his party is performing as a government, if he persistently comes across as bitter toward his own party, then a parting of ways might eventually be in order.