Manifestoes, charters for governance and vision statements tell voters what parties plan to do legislatively, but they do not tell us the character and competency of those vying for office.
If the candidate has a track record in politics, or in the forefront of business and civic endeavors, some clues can be garnered about what could be expected of his or her representation, and whether their time in office is likely to be more about self than service.
A desire for self preservation is to be expected in politics, but that desire is tempered in parliamentarians committed to building The Bahamas.
Insofar as governance is concerned, such counterbalancing of objectives is exhibited by a prime minister’s consistent placing of the people’s best interests above his personal or political comfort – particularly when it comes to carrying out necessary appointments or terminations.
Over the years, the quality of parliamentary representation and public sector management in The Bahamas has deteriorated in part because political parties and prime ministers are increasingly placing unquestioning loyalty ahead of integrity, competence and diligence in their selection processes.
In so doing, the House of Assembly, Senate, statutory boards and key governmental posts are becoming filled with stuffed shirts inebriated on hubris, entitlement and power, who do not know nor care to learn their system of government, and who by virtue of their lack of humility and restraint, are roadblocks to national progress.
House of cards
We cannot think of another time in an independent Bahamas where there has been the level of interference in the legislative branch by the executive branch, as has occurred under the Minnis administration.
Perspective has written extensively on the matter of parliamentary independence and why it matters to the Bahamian people and the nation’s democracy, and we have previously covered some of the salient issues that led to contentious relations between House Speaker Halson Moultrie and Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis.
For Bahamians who have been accustomed to seeing the House headed by a member of the governing party who enjoyed a good relationship with his colleagues therein, it is no doubt jarring to see the speaker of the House publicly address executive overreach from the chair.
While standoffs between the prime minister and House speaker are not unprecedented in the Commonwealth – Trinidad’s former Speaker Occah Seepaul versus its former prime minister Patrick Manning is one noteworthy example – they are relatively rare because both sides in Commonwealth countries generally understand and respect each other’s role within their system of government.
Contrary to suggestions that Moultrie’s campaign for parliamentary independence came about because he fell out of favor with Minnis, his push as a parliamentarian in fact began upon his election to the chair, as evidenced by his inaugural speech as the country’s 54th speaker of the House of Assembly.
We understand that very early on, some of the prime minister’s Cabinet colleagues sought to convince him that Moultrie’s agitation for parliamentary independence was a sign that he wanted to usurp Minnis’ power.
Whether those whisperings fueled future events between the prime minister and the speaker, only Minnis can say, but what has become frustratingly apparent is that the executive’s routine and unnecessary interference in the legislature is designed to send a message to Moultrie about who is really in charge.
For avoidance of doubt, the speaker is the presiding officer of the House of Assembly, not the prime minister, and the legislative branch is the highest branch of government, for out of it, all other branches exist.
The Minnis administration has demonstrated a difficulty in accepting this fact, notwithstanding that the constitution, which is the head of all branches of government, states that Cabinet shall be accountable to the Parliament.
Moultrie was within his authority as per House rules when he recently adjourned a House sitting, called upon the prime minister to answer on government’s handling of a COVID exposure in the House of Assembly, as well as when he held Minnis to the order of business when he sought to table bills for second reading in response to the speaker’s question.
But it is obvious that both men are now operating from a point of hardened emotions, and intractability.
Moultrie, who has been outspoken about his grievances over the past several months, told The Tribune last week that until very recently, the prime minister had not spoken to him for months.
A fundamental difference between childhood and adulthood is that the latter is typically characterized by the ability to manage one’s emotions, to respond appropriately to conflict, and to recognize that the world does not revolve around one’s wants and expectations.
The matter of the prime minister giving the silent treatment to the House speaker because of presumed offense, and the speaker being so angered by executive interference and alleged breaches of trust that he deems it best to air out the prime minister from the chair, is immature.
It is the Bahamian people in general, and Parliament staffers in particular, who are being made the losers because leadership cannot put aside its feelings, its insecurities about holding onto power, and neuroticism that suspects everyone as the enemy who is out to take one’s spot or make one look bad.
As the African proverb states, “When two elephants fight, the grass suffers.”
Both Moultrie and the prime minister are leaders in this country, and their fight is trampling under foot the Bahamian people in their house.
Regard being had for the facts, it is the prime minister who is to be held ultimately responsible for the deteriorated state of relations between the executive and legislative branches.
This is so not only because of actions taken by the executive this term, but because the buck stops with the prime minister in the running of the country, and he has a duty to respect both the Parliament and the office of the speaker, and to conduct his affairs so as to neutralize problems with colleagues before they can become a public spectacle.
Meantime, the speaker must also demonstrate a higher degree of restraint, and must recognize that even if he has right on his side, the House of Assembly is the people’s house, and he must, therefore, divorce his desire to fight against being personally disrespected, from a fully justifiable push for parliamentary independence.
Emotions taking over
Bringing up the rear in last Wednesday’s acrimonious House sitting was Deputy Speaker Donald Saunders, who failed to follow House rules in what appeared to be his intention to name Opposition Leader Philip Brave Davis.
He said he had “no regrets” in doing what he did, and in a moment of bravado, further claimed that had other members including Minnis behaved as he felt Davis did, he would have ordered them out as well.
Tough talk from the deputy speaker who, according to multiple party sources, inadvertently hit a sour note with the prime minister last year when he sought to guide the prime minister into clarifying statements he made in Parliament about taking unconstitutional actions to fight COVID-19.
Rule 88(3) allows the speaker to order a member to withdraw from a sitting for disorderly conduct (which is different from a suspension), but Saunders’ orders from the chair and subsequent commentary to the media suggest a lack of understanding of all House rules on maintaining order in a proceeding.
Saunders called Davis’ full name in ordering him to leave the House, which gave the impression that he was attempting to name Davis, but that is not what constitutes the naming of a member.
Naming a member is the procedure in parliaments under the Westminster system that enables the speaker to suspend a member for violating House rules, and the procedure requires the House’s consent to a motion the speaker must put to the floor for a vote.
This convention exists because all duly elected representatives have the right to take their seat in the House, and since suspension upends that right, such a move is only to be undertaken with the consent of the House.
In naming a member, the presiding officer ought also indicate which rule or rules were broken by that member.
In what was a seemingly emotive move, Saunders called on the sergeant at arms to remove Davis from the House, even though the Rule 88(6) states that force is only to be called upon if a member has been named and suspended on successful motion, and he or she refuses to withdraw from the House thereafter.
In any event, a review of the footage shows that the sergeant-at-arms was called upon by Saunders even before he asked Davis to withdraw from the sitting.
Saunders told reporters that he can still move a motion to name Davis when the House next meets if necessary, even though he might be hard pressed to demonstrate how Davis violated Rule 88(4), which gives rise to a member being named.
It is the duty of the presiding officer to protect the rights of all members and to guard the rights of the minority, and when a member is removed from the precincts, it is his or her constituents who are being removed as well.
This is why it is so critical that decisions taken from the chair do not violate the privilege of House members, or the rules governing how order is to be maintained during proceedings.
And it is also why all members ought to govern themselves according to the rules.
The tenor of interventions and back and forth wrangling this term points to far too many members of Parliament operating out of bruised egos, and their actions and comments appear rooted in the need to have something to prove.
Throughout the exchange between Saunders and Davis which began with exchanges between Saunders and Englerston MP Glenys Hanna Martin, Saunders appeared challenged to keep his cool, even though the matters being ventilated were run of the mill for this session of Parliament.
A rush to call upon the police to remove a member, who in the case of Davis, was not being combative with the chair, was in our view an impulsive one, and was indicative of the kind of sensitivity being evoked in a parliamentary session where the emotional dial is turned up to an unprecedented notch.
In every corner of notable controversies this term, feelings have a starring role.
Cabinet ministers are said to be reluctant to challenge leadership’s decisions because they feel the same could either get them fired, or cause more problems for them in their ministry than they are prepared to deal with.
At least two departures from Cabinet this term are said to have been precipitated by feelings held about whether the ministers who were competent in their posts, posed a threat to leadership.
Whether it is feelings about who might be aspiring to leadership, or feelings about who among members is the most loyal, or feelings about which media houses, or business people do not support the government, or feelings about how to avoid upsetting the wrong person’s feelings in order to remain in one’s post, voters did not elect to have their country governed by individuals walking on egg shells just to keep the peace in their caucus, and to keep the jobs many of them are so taken with.
What about the feelings of the Bahamian people – men and women of all ages who feel discouraged, ignored, undervalued and disrespected?
What about angst-filled Bahamians who feel their country is adrift with no clear sense of direction, and who have lost faith in the political process because they are convinced that politicians develop amnesia once they are elected to Parliament?
It is unreasonable to expect that these dynamics, which have been at play since the Minnis administration’s victory at the polls, will repair themselves at this stage.
But the Bahamian people deserve better than this.
They deserve governance that first asks “how will this help the people?”, before asking “how will this help me politically?”
And they deserve a government whose members are mature and humble enough to stay out of their feelings, and stay focused on charting the right course for The Bahamas.