Consider This | Bastardizing Westminster
“When men of intelligence upend, mangle or degrade treasured norms, it demonstrates how precipitous is a country’s decline.” — Front Porch, by Simon, September 17, 2015
Two weeks ago, we examined the Westminster system of government that we, along with nearly 50 countries, have adopted after political independence from Great Britain. We described the major features of the Westminster model, and offered several instances of how we have deviated from that system.
This week we would like to conclude this series on Westminster and consider this… Are there other instances where we are guilty of bastardizing the Westminster system of government that we claim to have adopted?
The maximum leader
Throughout the Caribbean, Africa and elsewhere, a prevalent feature that has emerged in post-colonial members of the British Commonwealth is the emergence of the political strong man or “maximum leader” both in pre and post political independence eras. That person, because of the role that he has orchestrated in the development of the organs of governance in his country, is often revered and sometimes deified.
We have observed irreconcilable reverence and unstinting loyalty that is extolled upon the founding fathers of many countries, which is often eroded where his successors are less iconoclastic and charismatic than their predecessors.
Voting for the party leader
No matter how we try to convince ourselves otherwise, in The Bahamas when we vote, very often we are not voting for the man or woman who is offering themselves in a particular constituency. No, not at all. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how qualified — or unqualified — the candidates are; we really vote for those persons who stand behind them, their party leader.
This is borne out by instances where constituents vote for party candidates even though they might not approve of them or even like them. However, because such voters are party loyalists and want their leader to become the prime minister, they support the person who the party nominates for their constituency. It can therefore be said that, in many ways, we are voting indirectly for the prime minister when we cast our ballots. Period.
This creates another dilemma. Just as Americans closely study those who are running for president, we spend considerable time considering the attributes of the people who are in line to become prime minister. Because they are only a means to an end, we tend to ignore the qualifications — or lack thereof — of the candidates of their respective parties, and instead vote blindly for anyone who will ensure we get the prime minister of our dreams. What happens then? We often wind up with members of Parliament who are not competent to sit in the House of Assembly, much less form the government and become Cabinet ministers.
This was never the intention of the Westminster system. That system was intended that political parties would offer their best candidates in the hope of forming the Government with a strong Cabinet selected from the lower and upper chambers.
If we accept that the Cabinet will only be as strong as its constituent members, principally elected members of the House of Assembly, it is therefore incumbent on political parties to nominate outstanding candidates with superlative credentials because of the important role that they will play if elected to office and invited to serve as a minister.
The behavior of accentuating the maximum leader has led to another interesting practice of the way we refer to our governments. We rarely refer to them as the “PLP government” or “FNM government”, following the English practice of referring to “Labour or Tory governments”. Instead, here in The Bahamas, we refer to our governments by the names of the prime minister of the day: that is, the Pindling government, the Christie government, the Ingraham government or the Minnis government.
Term of the prime minister
There is a general fallacy that our prime ministers are elected for a five-year term. That is not correct. Actually, political parties are given a five-year mandate at general elections, not prime ministers.
It is by tradition or convention that we have developed a five-year term for our prime ministers. But neither the Westminster model nor our own constitution supports this notion. We can easily refer to “the mother of all parliaments”, at Westminster Palace, to observe that this is not the case. There were many prime ministers, some recently, who did not sit out their entire elected parliamentary term as prime minister, although their party did.
Margaret Thatcher’s unprecedented third term did not come to an end because of the people, but because of her own party. At the end of her political career, it appeared that her own party would not re-elect her and John Major, a conservative politician who had been in Thatcher’s cabinet, succeeded her as prime minister. There was a similar changing of the guard mid-stream when Tony Blair was replaced by Gordon Brown. More recently, we witnessed a similar phenomenon with the resignation of Theresa May.
Several years ago, Australia, another member of the British Commonwealth which has adopted the Westminster model, replaced Tony Abbott with Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister after a snap leadership vote, before the end of his party’s term as the government.
Our own constitution provides that the governor general shall appoint “the member of the House of Assembly who is the leader of the party which commands the support of the majority of the members of that House”. This means that the prime minister can be replaced whenever he no longer enjoys the majority support of his elected members, even if that is during his five-year term as a member.
Recently here at home, we have bandied the idea of term limits for prime ministers. This is not only foreign to the Westminster system; it is a pernicious bastardization of that time-honored system. Bahamians possess a persistent propensity to adopt certain elements of the American model which limits the tenure of the president to two terms. There is no foundation whatsoever in the Westminster system for such an aberration and we should resolutely resist the proclivity to conflate the two deeply divergent systems. Period.
Resigning when you lose
There is an age-old tradition in Westminster that the leader of the political party who loses a general election or vote of no confidence immediately resigns as the leader of the party that was defeated. That tradition has conveniently escaped us here. We have only had four prime ministers since Majority Rule and two of them — both PLP prime ministers — failed to observe this convention by resigning as their party’s leader when they were defeated at the polls. Both prime ministers bastardized the Westminster system, which resulted in landslide defeats for their parties in both instances. This is a perversion of the Westminster model, which on at least one occasion, might have forestalled a change of government here. We will never really know.
As we previously observed, it has become crystal clear that some of our members of Parliament must undergo a deep immersion course regarding the Westminster system of government if they are going to employ the time-honored traditions and conventions of governance that we claim to have adopted. In addition, our citizens must become more informed about the traditions, conventions and practices of the Westminster system so that when our leaders run amok of them, offending individuals can be challenged to comply, and castigated when they corrupt its critical components.
To do otherwise is perilously tantamount to perpetuating a perversion of the Westminster system and could potentially paralyze the optimal operation of our government, hindering our future development and success as a nation.
• Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis and Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic & Litigation Support Services. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.