On 19th August, opposition senator Linton Lewis made an unremarkable statement in a remarkably incongruous context. One of the main roles of the parliamentary opposition, he said, was to seek clarification of governmental action and policy (or words to that effect). Senator Lewis’ offhand, innocuous assertion would not be out of place in any social studies, civics, or political science classroom.
What raised eyebrows was the place and time at which the truism was uttered. Senator Lewis chose to highlight the Opposition’s responsibility to clarify and scrutinize on the very day that they were explicitly eschewing such roles. Shortly before the debate on the Bill at issue, the Opposition scuttled the traditional parliamentary “Question Time” by refusing to pose a single query to Government ministers. To my memory, it is the first time that the Opposition attended parliament (i.e. did not boycott proceedings), yet failed to ask a single question of members of Cabinet.
In that same 19th August sitting of Parliament, Northern Grenadines MP Godwin Friday asserted that the place for him to bring the specific concerns of his constituents was the Hose of Assembly, presumably during Question Time. Yet, he asked no questions. Is the Government meeting the needs of the residents of the Northern Grenadines so comprehensively that there is no need for the representative to represent their concerns in Parliament?
Shortly after Senator Lewis spoke, two important bills enjoyed their first reading and were sent to Select Committee for further refinement. The bills dealt with terrorist financing and electronic funds transfers. The Leader of the Opposition, who is entitled – and may even be obligated – to name members of his choosing to Select Committees, flatly refused to nominate a single individual to scrutinize either piece of legislation.
The decisions to refrain from asking questions and refuse participation in Select Committees were apparently part of the Opposition’s new tactic of “non-cooperation” with the Government. Announced with great fanfare at their recent, ill-fated protest march, the opposition has promised to curtail any and all acts of cooperation with the government until Prime Minister Gonsalves “rings the bell” and calls new elections (Constitutionally due no later than March 2016). To quote Central Kingstown MP St. Clair Leacock, who announced the policy:
From here on, with a one-seat majority, Ralph, the New Democratic Party is not co-operating with you on anything, save and except for the next general elections. . . So if you want our support in any activity, in any action, and for any decision you make, ring the bell, call the election, relieve yourself from your misery, and bring back good governance to this country, and bring back the New Democratic party, bring back Eustace into prime ministership of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The Prime Minister and his Press Secretary have already criticized the non-cooperation tactic as “foolish,” or evidence that the NDP is “not interested in good governance or the people’s welfare.” I don’t intend to pile on to those broad assessments, or to question the general non-cooperation tactic. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the NDP’s business. In any event, this blog isn’t set up to score narrow political points. I have other forums and opportunities to do that.
My issue, and my humble request, is strictly confined to parliamentary practice: I do not understand why performing your basic parliamentary responsibilities considered an act of “cooperation” with the government. Since I don’t understand how scrutinizing, questioning and challenging the government constitute “cooperation,” I would respectfully request that the Opposition reconsider this particular tactic. By all means, continue your broad non-cooperation as you see fit, but inside of the Parliament, please perform the roles and functions that Vincentian taxpayers pay you and expect you to do.
Each sitting of Parliament allows every member of the Opposition (and government backbenchers) to ask relevant questions of any Government minister. According to the Standing Orders of the SVG House of Assembly, “Questions may be put to Ministers relating to the public affairs for which they are officially responsible.” Brining issues to light and putting Government ministers on the spot through questioning is universally considered to be a fundamental responsibility of opposition parliamentarians in our Westminster system.
The website of the Parliament of Australia views Question Time as:
Allow[ing] the opposition to ask executive government questions and to critically examine its work. Ministers are called upon to be accountable and explain their decisions and actions in their portfolios (areas of government responsibility).
So, in the view of the Australian Parliament, asking questions is not an act of cooperation with the Government, but instead, an opportunity for the opposition to scrutinize the government.
In a book called Parliament & Bureaucracy, one author said that question time provides “an effective — or at least potentially effective — opportunity for parliamentarians to hold ministers accountable for their administration in a highly exposed fashion.”
Is holding government ministers accountable – and potentially exposing them – an act of cooperation? Methinks not.
In the United States, a few election cycles ago, Presidential candidate John McCain suggested introducing the British Question Time concept in the US political system, thereby compelling the President to face questions from the US Congress. The New York Times suggested that such an innovation would be “a boon for democracy.” Somehow they didn’t see it as an act of cooperation between government and opposition.
The website of the British House of Commons has a “Brief Guide to Select Committees,” which says that:
A select committee is a cross-party group of MPs or Lords given a specific remit to investigate and report back to the House that set it up. Select committees gather evidence from ministers and officials, the public and organisations outside Parliament. Their reports are published and the Government must respond to their findings. Select committees are one of the key ways in which Parliament makes sure the Government has to explain or justify what it is doing or how it is spending taxpayers’ money
While there are some procedural differences between Vincentian Select Committees and their British counterparts, their role and function is the same. They are one of the “key ways” that the legislative, budgetary, or policy initiatives of the government can be scrutinized, refined and explained. Yet, on 19th August, the Leader of the Opposition refused to participate in two separate select committees. Why? Who is he hurting by this refusal – the ULP or SVG?
Section 68(1) of the Standing Orders of the House of Assembly of SVG says that “Every Select Committee shall be so constituted as to ensure so far as is possible, that the balances of parties in the House is reflected in the Committee.” In light of that mandate, does the Leader of the Opposition really have the option to refuse nominating members to serve on Select Committees? And even if it is theoretically possible for him to opt out of ensuring that Select Committees reflect the composition of the House of Assembly, is it advisable for him to abdicate this responsibility?
THE NON-COOPERATION ABDICATION
In 1989, the New Democratic Party won every single constituency in SVG, an historic 15-0 whitewash of the opposition Labour Party and Movement for National Unity (MNU). The unprecedented electoral romp raised interesting Constitutional quirks and questions: if no opposition candidate wins a seat, are the thousands of people who voted against the winning party simply unrepresented in Parliament? And, if there is no leader of the opposition, who names the two opposition senators that §28 of the Constitution prescribes as part of the House of Assembly?
The victorious NDP maintained that there was to be no leader of the opposition and no opposition senators. The Governor General, who is constitutionally mandated to name the leader of the opposition and opposition senators, agreed with the position of the NDP.
Ralph Gonsalves, then leader of the MNU, brought a Constitutional challenge, essentially to have the courts force the Governor General to name two opposition senators. He argued that, in addition to debating bills, a fundamental role of Parliament was for the opposition to hold the government’s feet to the fire through the asking of pertinent questions, and to examine and amend legislation through Select Committees. He also stressed the importance of the Public Accounts Committee, which is to be headed by the leader of the opposition.
The court action was ultimately unsuccessful, and the 1989-1994 parliament featured no opposition members, no question time, one-sided select committees, and no Public Accounts Committee. Every opportunity to clarify and scrutinize the legislative action and cabinet performance of the NDP Government was lost. The government later collapsed under the weight of its own hubris, born, in part, from a five-year hiatus from oversight, analysis and debate.
All of this historical context begs the question: why would the current Opposition voluntarily surrender rights that past opposition candidates actually sued the government to enjoy? And why would the NDP, which narrowly lost the last general elections by a single seat, allow the government to act in Parliament as if it has a 15-seat majority?
THE DEATH OF PARLIAMENTARY DEBATE, THE RISE OF ECHO CHAMBER REAFFIRMATION
Our Westminster political system is not kind to opposition parties. “If you think governing is hard,” says PM Gonsalves often, “try opposition.” As a party in opposition, you don’t have many real powers. You are likely to be outvoted on everything that brings you into conflict with the government. You are unable to set the policy agenda or use parliamentary procedures to block legislation that you oppose. Thirteen years of such unbroken parliamentary impotence is enough to cause any opposition leader to throw up their hands in frustration.
The temptation to avoid the anguish of parliamentary defeat is even greater in modern times, when media – both traditional and social – offer myriad opportunities to spread your message in friendly, unchallenging echo chambers, free from contrary voices or the pesky reality that you are in opposition. The NDP has famously boycotted Parliament in favour of holding a mock parliament with supporters in their own party headquarters. Members of Parliament have occasionally walked out of the House of Assembly and headed directly to the friendly confines of party-sponsored radio programmes.
It is clear that the occasional parliamentary boycott has its place in the political bag of tricks that an opposition has at its disposal. There is nothing wrong with the selective use of boycotts to make a point, but an apparent abandonment of Parliamentary responsibilities for what could be another year-plus of sittings is unprecedented.
The Opposition seems to have decided that the House of Assembly is not the best forum for it to get its message across. They are probably correct in that assessment. The style and format of Parliamentary debate plays directly to the strengths of Prime Minister Gonsalves, yet makes many other parliamentarians with different skill sets seem out of their depth. Because of this, the opposition NICE Radio rarely broadcasts Parliamentary sittings, while state and government stations cover the sessions in mind-numbing detail.
Further, after a constant drumbeat of breathless, hyper-partisan and overheated apocalyptic pronouncements on new and traditional media, the constraints of decorous parliamentary debate can be somewhat anticlimactic. Witness the hype surrounding the allegedly evil and corrupt Passport Act; or the supposedly reckless plundering of the National Insurance Scheme – two media sensations that quickly fizzled when subjected to the logic of reasoned discourse.
Things never sound better than when they are ventilated in a closed echo chamber, where the only words you hear are your own, even if repeated by others. Less so when those pronouncements can be answered, deconstructed and contextualized by dissonant voices.
I’ve written in the past about the way echo chambers and hyper-partisan name calling affect civil discourse in our small country. No need to retread that topic here. And there is nothing wrong with the proliferation of new places and opportunities to get your political point across. The more the merrier. But the ease of operating in a radio or social media echo chamber cannot be an excuse for any serious political party to abandon the foundations of our Constitutional parliamentary democracy. Failing to do your job in parliament doesn’t discredit the governing party, it discredits Parliament itself. And if the Opposition ever hopes to actually govern in the future, it’s gonna need a legitimate and respected Parliament. Because you can oppose a government from a street corner, a rum shop, a radio station or a web site. But you can’t govern a country from any of those locales. You’ll need a functioning, respected and legitimate parliament. It is the responsibility of all parties and politicians to perform their assigned roles in that parliament, up until the time that the electorate changes those roles.
I am writing this blog posting on the eve of another sitting of Parliament. Once again, the Opposition has not given notice of a single question that they intend to ask. This means that, once again, no Opposition parliamentarian will ask a single question of any Government minister. But the radio programmes, the blogosphere, and social media are positively bristling with questions for the Government. There are, to name a few, questions worth asking on the Clare Valley Low Income Housing development; our Ebola preparedness; the latest Chikungunya statistics and vector control; the value and acceptance of associate degrees from the SVG Community College; Crime; the latest economic data; the conviction and sentencing of the former Registrar; Bigga Biggs; traffic and bypass options now that work has begun on the leeward highway; and a host of narrow constituent concerns relating to particular roads, playing fields, projects and the like.
Is it that parliament is no longer the venue to raise and answer these questions? Is the role of opposition parliamentarian now ceded to journalists and Internet trolls? Is it that the government’s well-publicised positions on these issues are so comprehensive that there is no need to question them?
Or is it that the Opposition’s responsibility to shine a light has been overtaken by their desire to generate political heat? Is it that the accusation is more important than the answer, or is it that the obligation to generate parliamentary scrutiny is less important (or more difficult) than easy, echo-chamber mudslinging?
THE ROLE OF OPPOSITIONS
The website of parliament of Queensland, Australia has a nice, succinct description of the role of an opposition in Parliament:
The Opposition’s main role is to question the government of the day and hold them accountable. Opportunities for scrutinising the policies and administration of the Government are provided in Question Time, the Address- in-Reply debate, Budget debates, debates on legislation, notices of motion and No Confidence Motions. Members of the Opposition who are members of Parliamentary Committees have a further opportunity to scrutinise new legislation as part of the Committee process.
The Opposition also utilises the media to reach the electorate with its views and to establish an identity as an alternative government.
Think about that description for a second, and apply it to our local context. Our Opposition is not using question time, did not engage in the Budget debate and is not participating in parliamentary committees. These are not acts of non-cooperation with THE GOVERNMENT, they are acts of non cooperation with Parliamentary DEMOCRACY.
As I said earlier, set aside whatever you may think of the broad, general tactic of non-cooperation. Oppositions in parliament have duties and functions. They are not optional. Yet, the fact is, that within the four walls of the House of Assembly, the Opposition is simply not doing its job.
Now, like any opposition party in a competitive democracy, the NDP wants to ascend from their current status to the ranks of government. However, in most contexts, not doing your job is a tactic that ends with you being fired, not promoted.