The Parliament of The Bahamas, the nation’s highest branch of government, consisting of the Senate and the House of Assembly, does not belong to the members of government and opposition who sit therein.
And, contrary to lingering belief, the House is not a Free National Movement (FNM) or Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) house, nor the possession of a political party once votes are counted on election day.
The House belongs to the Bahamian people whose vote, as an expression of their voice, elects men and women to occupy the House on their behalf, and in pursuit of improving the quality of life of all Bahamians.
The House of Assembly is the people’s house, and though it is part of the highest branch of government (above the executive – Cabinet – and the judiciary), many Bahamians feel their voice occupies the lowest seat of importance and priority once their votes are counted.
What the average Bahamian does not recognize, however, is that longstanding weaknesses in The Bahamas’ parliamentary system — several of which have been raised this term by House Speaker Halson Moultrie — are key reasons the Bahamian people are not getting the quality of representation they are entitled to at the parliamentary level.
Moultrie’s likability or indelicate stage presence is irrelevant.
Too often in Bahamian society, we focus on personalities involved in matters of national importance, and either dismiss or support — usually to our own detriment — such matters depending on how we feel about those personalities.
Regardless of who would have been elected speaker in Parliament’s current session, stubborn weaknesses in our parliamentary process would have continued — weaknesses that make accountability little more than a cliche, encourage Cabinet governance that is arrogant and void of transparency and that undermine the people’s voice by limiting the power of parliamentarians who do not sit around the Cabinet table.
Since the House of Assembly is the people’s House, how it is handled by the government is a reflection of government’s regard and respect for the Bahamian people, their voice and their indispensable role in our democracy.
The people versus the Cabinet
When we watch large processions of parliamentarians at Government House sworn in as Cabinet ministers and as parliamentary secretaries (who are also members of the executive branch), most rarely look beyond the occasion to consider how the size of the grouping in relation to the size of the House of Assembly, will impact the viability of the people’s voice.
And when opposition parties push the colloquial “gussimae Cabinet” moniker at government, they do it moreso as a political joust, and not as a genuine campaign to make effectual Article 72 of the constitution, which states that the executive “shall be collectively responsible” to the Parliament.
Being “collectively responsible” to the Parliament does not mean that Cabinet need only show up, assert its will through the laying of its bills and move to have its will made law.
It means that Cabinet must account to and submit its will to the will of the Parliament, but the effect of this constitutional requirement cannot materialize as envisaged if the executive holds a disproportionate share of House seats, creating an executive branch whose will cannot be constrained, because members of the executive must always vote with the government in order to maintain their posts.
This is why Commonwealth countries, including Britain from whom The Bahamas adopted its parliamentary system, have legislated that the executive shall not make up more than 15 percent of the House of Representatives.
Doing so enables Parliament to hold government accountable and vote down a government bill if it so chooses, thereby encouraging the government to work to bring forward bills the majority of the people’s representatives would be willing to support.
The executive in The Bahamas makes up 56 percent of the House of Assembly — the largest voting bloc.
If Cabinet knows its share of the House means its will cannot be stopped regardless of the will of other members, an absolute power dynamic develops.
This dynamic not only stifles bi-partisanship and fosters disrespect for backbench members, but enables a culture of corruption and secrecy, and promotes laziness and lack of innovation on the part of government that would see little incentive in working hard to craft legislation worthy of the Parliament, and of the needs and aspirations of the Bahamian people.
This dynamic also thwarts the power of the people whose opposition and backbench representatives would find little success in halting the government’s course of action, or in pursuing proposed legislation the public wants to have introduced.
Limits on the size of the executive are part and parcel with the fundamentality of Parliament’s independence from the executive it is to hold to account.
The government has held back thus far on introducing an integral first step to creating parliamentary independence, the Parliamentary Services Bill.
The bill would put the Parliament of The Bahamas back on par with Commonwealth countries in reposing administrative control of the Parliament in the hands of the Parliament, removing it from the current control of the secretary to the Cabinet and, in effect, the control of the prime minister to whom the Cabinet secretary is answerable.
The people’s will and the people’s bills
Cabinet ministers are not the only members of Parliament who can introduce a bill.
Senators as well as MPs outside of the executive can introduce bills so long as they are not money bills, which are bills concerning taxation or public expenditure.
This is where the Bahamian people, through their representatives, can have the kinds of proposed legislation that suit their interests, be both introduced and potentially passed.
A scenario where such bills can pass even if all members of the executive oppose the bills, including the prime minister, is possible if the executive is held to a minority.
Such a scenario can also keep a government on its toes, and pressure it to be in tune with the will of the electorate, thereby heightening the chances of the people’s will becoming bills that can become law.
With the advent of online petition websites, Bahamians have developed and signed on to petitions calling on the government to take action on a variety of issues, but many believe the initiative is pointless since these petitions never make it to Parliament or receive government response.
In our January 2020 piece entitled “Petition Power”, we highlighted current House rules and procedures that allow for petitions to be presented to Parliament by an MP once they contain a minimum of 25 petitioners.
But the House rules governing the introduction of public petitions as well as the laying of bills by members outside of the executive, run counter to democracy and the advancement of the people’s will — rules that could be reviewed and changed if the House Rules Committee, chaired by a member of the Cabinet, would meet to do its important work.
Bad rules can’t produce good results
As we asserted earlier, the state of the Parliament is a reflection of government’s respect and regard for the people who enable Parliament to exist.
A read of the Rules and Procedures of the House of Assembly adopted in 2005, reveals a litany of bad rules that run counter to democracy by restricting opposition to the government of the day, and encroaching on the constitutional right and privilege of MPs outside of the executive to introduce bills they believe should be passed on behalf of the Bahamian people.
If such an MP wishes to have his or her bill introduced and read for the first time, Rule 64(2) requires that the majority of House members or a quorum (a minimum of 10 members including the MP) grants leave to do so.
This invariably makes it possible for the executive as a majority voting bloc, to obstruct the MP’s desire to introduce a bill, thereby violating that MP’s right to introduce bills on behalf of his constituents and the general public, and violating the Bahamian people’s right to have such bills introduced through their representatives.
As for public petitions, Rule 52(10) says that upon presentation of the petition to the House, “there shall be no discussion” on the subject matter therein, and the rules do not require a minister responsible for the petition subject to respond to the petition, nor do they mandate that the government takes a particular course of action on a petition.
The Rules Committee, chaired by Leader of Government Business Renward Wells, is one of seven standing committees of Parliament, which serve as pillars of the Parliament that help to develop it into a strong and robust institution for the benefit of those it represents.
These committees also serve as a check on the executive which is why Moultrie, who appoints each committee in his capacity as speaker, recently made the appropriate move to correct his previous oversight of appointing Cabinet ministers to sit on these committees.
The Rules Committee has not convened a meeting in the three and a half years of the current session of Parliament, notwithstanding the urgency of producing updated rules and procedures that can advance the Parliament and make it more democratic.
This contempt for democracy and accountability is also seen in the government’s continued refusal to provide the Public Accounts Committee with documents requested on public expenditure, and in government’s failure – aided by a bad House rule – to allow for regular question and answer periods referred to as opposition day.
Wells recently had the temerity to tell opposition members that the government “will take under advisement” their day to ask questions, which is not only an affront to the Parliament, but an insult to the Bahamian people opposition MPs represent.
Budgetary allocations to Parliament over the years have not translated into a much-needed modernization of the services provided by the House and Senate, such that the general public cannot readily and electronically access tabled documents and audio and video footage of parliamentary proceedings.
If successive governments that have had administrative control of the Parliament, have not seen fit to deepen democracy by making public documents and materials readily accessible to the Bahamian people through the modernization of services, there should be little wonder why Bahamians in 2020 are still beating the drum of full freedom of information enactment, so as to access information that has not yet been made public.
The speaker versus the government
Moultrie’s most recent line-in-the-sand intervention, which some have labeled an assault on the government, is unprecedented in an independent Bahamas, but speaks to deteriorated cohesion within the governing party’s caucus, and a leadership problem that Cabinet ministers and backbenchers speak to candidly in private quarters.
That the office accommodations of the presiding officer of the people’s House is in such a deplorable state, is a disgrace for The Bahamas whether or not Moultrie had chosen to go public with his concerns.
Against the backdrop of millions spent and earmarked for upgrades to government buildings, the protracted state of affairs with the people’s House and tensions between the speaker and members of the executive that are now indisputable, raise questions about whether advancing the people’s House is being stonewalled by the government due to personal grievances that have taken precedence over the needs of the people’s seat of power.
The speaker of the House of Assembly is a preeminent office in our democracy, as is the office of prime minister and the office of the chief justice.
How The Bahamas regards these offices and the institutions to which they belong, tells the world who we are as a nation, and tells the Bahamian people the extent to which their governments are more concerned with their own comfort and preeminence, than with building for the Bahamian people the kind of democracy the constitution envisions and their vote yearns for.
As a point of historical context, Moultrie’s standoff with the governing party of which he is a member is not unprecedented for the region, and in the case of Trinidad, led in part to the sitting government’s subsequent defeat at the polls.
In 1992, Trinidad and Tobago’s House of Representatives elected its first female speaker, Occah Seapaul, who was placed under house arrest three years later by then Prime Minister Patrick Manning, who declared a limited state of emergency in order to effect the arrest after Seapaul refused to resign her post.
Observers described Manning’s move as the result of his government’s view that Seapaul was not a compliant speaker, and the action triggered a chain of events including the resignation of a popular member of Cabinet, that ultimately led to the Manning administration’s electoral defeat.
The state of relations between the presiding officer of the people’s House and the government does not augur well for the advancement of the interests of the Bahamian people in the legislature.
And Parliament’s continued state of dependence on the branch of government it is constitutionally bound to hold accountable is bad for democracy, and an enemy of the kind of transparency in government Bahamians want, but in recent years have not been given.
Parliament is for the people, and the House of Assembly is the people’s House.
To keep the Parliament weak and impotent is to keep the Bahamian people from realizing the potential of their democracy and their power therein.