John Barritt

There are ways we can do it better

There are some among us, Mr Editor, who think we should scrap the Westminster system altogether. We know why. There appears to be so much unnecessary division and bitterness to our politics, which in turn seems to widen the divide in the greater community, and not just on the big issues but the small ones, too — and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

But I am not so sure that we need to throw out the baby before first taking a hand to the dirty bathwater. This is work that could entail further constitutional change, but not necessarily, as we seek to not only modernise what we have but to also make Bermuda a more mature parliamentary democracy.

Improvement doesn’t necessarily require independence. On the contrary. There are some reforms that can be made without constitutional change that have as their object the creation of a foundation that makes co-operation and collaboration standard operating procedure among our parliamentarians; that is, that those twin concepts become not an option, not a choice, but a requirement.

How so?

First, let’s elevate the Legislature to the status it is meant to enjoy under the 1968 Constitution Order. It is not by accident that the section on the Legislature appears before that on the Executive (Cabinet) in the 1968 Order. The Premier, and by extension Cabinet, derive their power to govern from the Legislature. As the Order mandates, it is the Legislature that makes laws “for the peace, order and good government of Bermuda”.

The Legislature is also meant to exercise oversight over the execution of powers by the Premier and Cabinet ministers, holding them accountable and keeping them in check where appropriate.

That’s the theory anyway. While it has happened now and again over the years, by and large party politics has meant that a keen backbencher ought to go along to get along, most especially if they aspire to a seat on the front bench. Real debates take place in caucus, out of the public view, and participation in the Legislature gets reduced to speaking and voting in support — usually scripted talking points — and/or bashing and trashing the other side. Ho hum, yawn, the usual.

Time for a change. Let’s establish those committees of backbenchers, government and opposition, senators, too, whose job is to monitor the work of the various ministries. They can cut their teeth and show their stuff as they position themselves for portfolios they would like to hold. Legislation can be reviewed around the table with the policymakers and drafters in attendance to explain and answer questions. These meetings can be broadcast and be open to the media and public.

There is still room for disagreement and debate when the legislation comes to the House and Senate, where there is principled disagreement.

The Public Accounts Committee, chaired by the Opposition spokesman for finance, but with a government majority, also has a very important role to play, monitoring as it is supposed to all government expenditure.

We could usefully beef up the PAC and perhaps even enshrine its duties in the Constitution Order. At the very least we need to overhaul the Parliament Act 1957 — yes, 1957 — which governs how the Legislature operates and how parliamentary committees are meant to work. The independence of the Legislature from the Executive could also be usefully and firmly established.

The requirement to first work together with a shared role and with a shared goal could help to bring about a shift in our political culture away from the constantly adversarial nature of the Westminster model.

Other items for consideration should include:

• The appointment of a Speaker from outside the members of the Chamber by a mechanism acceptable to parties

• Whether it is time to review the numbers of members of the House of Assembly and Senate, possibly along the lines that the Sage Commission recommended

• Whether we should even continue to have a Senate and, if so, whether the time come for its members to be elected rather than appointed, and possibly by proportional representation by parish rather than by first past the post

Let’s not stop there, either. There are other areas that could use review and overhaul

• Prohibition on the grounds of sexual orientation as one of our fundamental rights and freedoms

• The constitutional establishment of a Judicial and Legal Services Commission to advise and recommend on judicial appointments

• The inclusion of magistrates as members of the judiciary rather than the public service

• Enshrining the right to exercise the vote, including by absentee ballot by properly registered voters where and when appropriate

Of course, what’s needed to make any of this happen is the political will. There may be cause for hope on this front, Mr Editor. The One Bermuda Alliance promoted itself in opposition as a party for change in the 2012 election, although very little materialised upon election. The Progressive Labour Party, on the other hand, has shown over the 50 years that it is a party with both an appetite and the will for reform — constitutional and otherwise.

Over to you, people.