Understanding Bahamian parliamentary democracy
Today, 45 years to the day of the attainment of majority rule, there is chronic and widespread ignorance of our system of government and national constitution. Sadly, no longer surprisingly, so-called “informed” people in civil society, academia, business and “the press corps” are among the woefully uninformed.
Many of them regurgitate effluvia on the supposed problems of our parliamentary democracy on matters ranging from “checks and balances” to collective responsibility and the constitutional powers of the prime minister.
Mesmerized by American politics including the theatrics that substitute for news on U.S. cable news, some local commentators cannot utter “checks” without mindlessly adding “balances”, with seemingly limited appreciation for either term.
The supposed corrective measures to repair our supposedly broken democracy are, to paraphrase attorney Andrew Allen in the context of shallow arguments for term limits, superficial non-solutions to imaginary problems.
One recent and egregious example is an opinion piece entitled, “The Bahamas: A Constitutional Dictatorship?” The commentary is callow. It lacks depth and breadth. One wonders how conversant the columnist is with the Bahamian constitution, our constitutional history and the rudimentary history and philosophy of parliamentary democracy.
It is important to have a diversity of opinion on the issues of the day. But opinion devoid of or sloppy with facts, by personalities helping to form the opinions of others through talk radio, television, the Internet and in the print media, is just more noise. Public dialogue is impoverished not enriched when opinions are divorced from critical thinking and fact-finding.
The column in question descended into unthinking rhetoric and a cavalcade of contradictions partly because it was based on and began with false premises, so nauseatingly repeated that they have become accepted as fact:
“We have an anachronistic, colonial governance system that is no longer suitable for the needs of our developing nation in this 21st century. We inherited this Westminster system of governance from the British.”
It is difficult to take seriously opinions that get basic facts wrong. To discuss the issue of governance we need to get our language and concepts in order. The appellation Westminster system of governance is not quite precise and misses some critical differences between Bahamian and British parliamentary democracy.
For instance, at Westminster the British parliament is sovereign. There is no supreme law or written constitution in Britain. By a simple majority of parliament in Britain fundamental rights can be altered and the monarchy itself can be abolished.
The Bahamas has a written constitution with clearly defined checks on power. Before certain fundamental provisions of the constitution (entrenched and specially entrenched) can be changed, a two-thirds or three-quarters majority vote of both Houses of Parliament is required.
Furthermore, the proposed changes must be approved by the electorate in a referendum before they can become law. This process is an innovation that is not enjoyed by all parliamentary democracies, including some in the Caribbean.
It gives the Bahamian people direct control over the fundamental provisions of the Constitution, including provisions relating to citizenship, fundamental rights and freedoms, and the establishment of our national governmental institutions.
There are frameworks, templates and provisions utilized by most countries, including former British colonies, in the drafting of national constitutions. Still, The Bahamas does not have a cookie cutter constitution. Any suggestion to that effect is misleading and does not fully acknowledge or appreciate the role played by our constitutional fathers in the framing of the independence constitution.
A number of the customs and traditions used in the much larger British parliamentary system are not germane to and would be unworkable in our context. With a 650-member House of Commons compared to our much smaller House of Assembly, our practice of parliamentary democracy is necessarily different.
The assertion that we have a colonial system of governance in itself is patently not true. Furthermore, it contradicts the assertion, made in the same breath, that we have a Westminster model of governance.
Under the colonial system of governance the Colony of the Bahama Islands had a parliament that was, in the words of the late Bahamian constitutional expert the Hon. Eugene Dupuch, “representative but not responsible”.
There was no Cabinet, but there was an Executive Council, presided over by the British governor, who enjoyed enormous power. There was also a system of boards, forerunners to government ministries, with the governor enjoying ultimate control over major decisions by the boards.
The dismantling of that colonial system began with the 1964 Constitution that was negotiated in London the previous year. That Constitution ushered in a large measure of internal self-rule with the British governor still retaining some powers including defense, security and foreign affairs. That process continued with the 1969 Constitution, when more power devolved to the Cabinet, and was completed with the Independence Constitution of 1973.
Thanks to the foresight of our Bahamian constitutional fathers who adeptly negotiated with the British, The Bahamas is now a modern, stable, successful parliamentary democracy. While there were differences between the Bahamian political parties at the Independence Conference on a few matters relating to rights, there was general agreement on matters of governance.
We no more have a colonial system of governance than India, Australia, Jamaica, Barbados or Canada, fellow parliamentary democracies in the Commonwealth of Nations. Anything but anachronistic, this system has proven to be durable, flexible and workable across cultures, countries and centuries.
Unfortunately, many who should know better believe that parliamentary democracy itself is antiquated, and that the United States has a better system of government, and one that is inherently more advisable or workable. This is a fallacy to which we will have to return.
There are many non-Commonwealth nations which have opted for parliamentary democracy. They have similarly discovered a certain genius within the system, the rudiments of which are hundreds of years old having evolved into one of the more effective systems of government in human history.
Jan 10, 2012