In his book “The Essential Lippmann: A political philosophy for liberal democracy”, American newspaper commentator Walter Lippmann said, “And the principle which distinguishes democracy from all other forms of government is that in a democracy the opposition not only is tolerated as constitutional, but must be maintained because it is in fact indispensable.”
As the House of Assembly prepares to reconvene this week, and the opposition Free National Movement (FNM) prepares to embark on a necessary transition phase, we are further reminded of the words of former UK Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, “No government can be long secure without a formidable opposition.”
Once a new leader of the FNM emerges after the party’s convention on November 27, it is expected that the governor general will be advised that a new leader of opposition should be appointed.
A half-century old this month, the FNM has governed The Bahamas for four of the 11 terms held since independence, and is inarguably in need of such a leadership change both at the party and legislative level, given the party’s ineffable departure from its founding principles and ideals over the last nine years.
The task of rebuilding is weighty enough within itself for a new FNM leader, who must also lead his parliamentary caucus in small number as opposition to the governing Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), made up of both seasoned MPs and talented first-time parliamentarians anxious to make their mark.
The skill, temperance, integrity and openness to consultation that will be required of the FNM’s new leader in balancing these tasks on behalf of the Bahamian people and the democracy cannot be overstated.
With the government’s supermajority and the House’s disproportionately large share of Cabinet ministers making it virtually impossible for government’s agenda to be halted from within the legislature, the opposition will not only have to be aggressive and creative in its approach, but politically nimble, diligent and well prepared.
Importantly, it must be guided by the understanding that the opposition’s job is not simply to oppose for the mere, unsubstantiated sake of opposing.
It must also fully accept that it can have no hope of serving the nation well, if it forgets or refuses to submit to the fact that its opponents are across the aisle, and not within its own caucus.
No strength without unity
Challenging factions in the FNM are perhaps as much a recognizable feature of the party as are its accomplishments in the campaign of transparency and accountability in government.
It is our observation that the FNM’s weaknesses often come about through party members turning on one another in pursuit of one’s agenda or ambition, rather than zeroing in on the bigger picture – which for political parties is winning the government – and submitting one’s personal desires to the goal of that bigger picture.
If this continues to be the dynamic of the FNM moving forward, making the current administration a one-term government could prove a pie-in-the-sky aspiration, particularly when one weighs the FNM’s need to repair broken trust in its party against dividends which could be gained if the PLP manages to exceed expectations in office.
The FNM proved not to be effective in opposition during the last Christie administration in large part because of internal tensions brought about by factors including style of leadership.
One of the more damaging attributes of FNM Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis’ tenure has been his ostracizing of the party’s former leader and only prime minister prior to 2017, as well as a reputed aim to purge the party of those whose sole and unquestioning loyalty Minnis could not assure himself of.
Doing so not only weakened the organization and its ability to more effectively govern once it assumed office, but fomented further divisions in a party that has fought with more than its fair share of the same throughout its 50 years of existence.
With the sun now setting on Minnis’ tenure as leader, it appears that the former party leader’s presence and contribution might once again be welcomed, though this important return to healthy party relations is only one part of a broader imperative.
The FNM will have to work to encourage estranged members of the party who are still aligned with the party’s founding ideals to return to the fold, since the organization will need as much acumen, experience and ingenuity as it can harness to recondition itself for battle both in and outside Parliament.
How Minnis chooses to function in Parliament under the potential leadership of one with whom he has had contentious relations remains to be seen, but what is more pressing will be the demand of Minnis to be cooperative with the party’s new leadership, divorcing himself of the idea that he still runs, or ought to still run, the organization.
The FNM’s outgoing leader would do a disservice to his party for example, by formulating ways to reclaim or control the leadership, rather than joining hands with his caucus to strategize ways to take the best fight possible to the PLP.
It is no secret that Minnis had been actively canvassing the party’s membership in furtherance of his desire to remain on as leader, ultimately indicating in a statement last week that he will not seek nomination after what we understand has been a less than favorable response received from delegates.
When it is apparent that a leader has been unwilling to let go of power, and while in office demonstrated little restraint in the quest to retain power, it is foolhardy to assume that such a leader would be pleased to give his full and genuine support to the next man.
As a former prime minister and leader, certainly Minnis’ contributions ought to be welcomed in the party, and in his statement at least, he has pledged to provide the same.
At the same time, a strong opposition calls for him and parliamentarians loyal to him to submit to their constitutional duty, and to work authentically with leadership and one another to fulfill that duty.
The party’s new leader, of course, must also be fully prepared to do the same, putting aside past grievances and offenses, respecting the rights, privileges and contributions of fellow caucus members, and fostering unity through a style of leadership that facilitates cohesiveness.
Back to basics
With a 32-7 majority and an ambitious legislative agenda, the PLP led by Prime Minister Philip Brave Davis has every intention of breaking the trend since 2002 of governments being kicked out after one term.
Having gained thousands of votes over the previous election, it is nonetheless clear from September’s general election outcome that the governing PLP’s victory came about because of the Bahamian people’s wholesale rejection of the leadership of former prime minister Minnis.
But the opposition under soon-to-be new leadership ought not walk into the Parliament with the idea that since the people voted more so against the FNM than for PLP, it can afford to be less than exemplary and precise in identifying and effectively communicating
deficiencies in government where they exist.
During the last Christie administration, FNM caucus members did not fully acquaint themselves with the rules and procedures of Parliament, and as such, did not do an adequate job in resisting efforts to silence the opposition.
Being so few in number in Parliament heightens the need for the opposition to be both knowledgeable and resourceful, in order to ensure that it works well to keep any attempt at government overreach in the legislature at bay.
FNM MPs must not be slothful in their legislative duties, and must read bills which government will table, as it is impossible to provide either worthy criticism or useful advice on proposed legislation which one has not bothered to study.
We encourage the FNM to raise the standard of its debate contributions, being incisive in its analysis of proposed legislation and resolutions, considered in its discussions on the implications of government’s initiatives, and relevant in the matters upon which it chooses to seize.
We recall during the 2012 term, that just about every annual budget exercise was countered in focus by a squabble or controversy within the opposition, ultimately taking the country’s focus off the Christie administration’s budgetary concerns and placing it on the latest dramatic eruption within the FNM.
This is something we hope will not be repeated, and we presume that an FNM desirous of productive transitioning will manage its internal affairs in such a way that they do not become a distraction to the opposition’s duty in the legislature.
The opposition is the alternative government, and as such, we call on the FNM to demonstrate the same by bringing forth proposed amendments to bills as it deems appropriate, and by utilizing its privilege of bringing proposed bills of its own to Parliament.
That such bills would have little likelihood of passing is secondary in importance to the opposition showing both initiative and forward-thinking in the legislative process, not to mention showing political savvy depending on the nature of the bill being proposed.
The opposition controls the House’s most powerful sessional or standing committee – the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
The PAC is empowered to examine and report on public accounts; other reports, accounts or financial statements of ministries, departments and public corporations before the House; accounts that are referred to it by the House or under any law; and reports of the auditor general.
The PAC is mandated to report to the House at least once every session, and has the power to require the attendance of witnesses or the production of documents.
Over the last two terms, the PAC has disgracefully been made a political football at the expense of the Bahamian people, who have been robbed of the transparency and accountability benefit achieved through a hard-working and properly functioning PAC.
There is not now, nor has there ever been an actual impediment to government turning over to the PAC documents or information it requests on public finances, and we not only expect the Davis administration to fulfill its duty in this regard, but the opposition to unyieldingly press for the same, and approach its work in the PAC assiduously.
Make the message clear
Last week, we offered insights into how the Davis administration could improve its quality of communication for the benefit of the Bahamian people.
Communication with the public has been by no means a strong suit of the FNM within the last several years, and it is among one of the foremost aspects of its function as the opposition that it must improve upon.
To be clear, shouting “the PLP is corrupt” at every given occasion does not qualify as being an effectively aggressive opposition.
As the alternative government, the FNM must settle on what its overarching message actually is, and find the means to making its situational messages on policies, legislation and government actions discernible and cogent.
Effective communication in opposition plays on the strengths of individual caucus members, and works best when the caucus works well enough and is adequately guided enough behind closed doors, that regardless of which member speaks the team makes one sound.
Where the opposition determines that government is acting in a manner contrary to the people’s best interests, it must be well equipped to help the Bahamian people understand what has happened and why it matters to them, especially in the case of more nuanced circumstances where the full ramifications of a matter might not be widely apparent.
It is going to take time for the FNM to prove to the Bahamian people that it will once again be the party the country trusted, and the FNM the country needs to improve today and secure tomorrow.
Whether it can do so over the next five years remains to be seen.
Regardless of the party in opposition, the opposition matters in a democracy.
And the strength of our democracy requires the opposition’s matters to be competently managed, and squarely aligned with an unfailing pursuit of good governance.