Time to move on from Westminster
Checks and balances in the Westminster model are one thing; opportunities for collaboration are quite another. It is just a matter of creating the necessary vehicles to make it possible. Probably the most familiar of which are joint select committees, traditionally comprising members of Government and Opposition from both Houses of the Legislature.
But they are relatively rare, and they are usually struck to explore and report on particular issues that are of persuasive interest and concern to the government of the day. The reason for that is obvious: the Government has the majority of votes in the House and that majority determines what will or will not go forward. That, of course, is democracy in action, although it can also often be an exercise in pure politics.
On the other hand, standing committees — ie, committees required by parliamentary rules — obviate the need for votes and political considerations. One of the most important in that stable is the Public Accounts Committee, the body that is meant to review reports and references from the Auditor-General, as well as any contracts or expenditures it considers worthy of close examination; and parliamentary practice here and elsewhere calls for that committee to be headed by the Opposition spokesman for finance.
The wonder to me has always been that it is not more active than it is; with regular meetings open to the media and public, perhaps even broadcast. The goal there is to not only keep people informed but to hold to account decision-makers and those who are charged with implementing those decisions.
Examination by committee does not necessarily have to be the parliamentary place where initiatives go to die. It ought to become accepted and acceptable practice for committees to keep under review the policies and decisions of the government of the day as they are put into practice. Three committees should be sufficient, and they would give members of the back benches, Government and Opposition, and the Senate, the opportunity to cut their teeth and shadow those departments and ministries.
They can also become vehicles by which members can work together, provided that they become standard operating procedure.
More importantly, they could help to bridge the transition from one administration to another, especially when there is a change in government. It should not be unusual or out of the question to examine and work through a proposed contract that it is going to tie up a major government asset for a period of ten, 20, 30 years or more. One example comes to mind.
A lot can change over time, including governments, and it could well make for a smoother transition when those who are taking over are as familiar as those who are on their way out. It may also make for the kind of political stability investors usually prefer, I should think.
Neither does it hurt to have the extra set of eyes and voices, all of whom are representatives of the voters. Should there be commercially sensitive information involved, the Speaker of the House has a decision to make, which is as it should be. Mind you, some of the relevant governing legislation, such as the Parliament Act 1957 — that’s right, 1957! — needs to be overhauled to make possible what is required and will be relevant to effect change.
A faint hope?
It will not be easy. But the weight of our parliamentary history should not deter from moving in new directions. The Westminster model is one that we inherited. On the 400th anniversary of our Legislature, we should not overlook that our present has been very much shaped by our past, and that our past has been largely colonial — a past that reinforced and exploited division.
True, there has never been a society without its divisions; and, it might be said, democracies of the Westminster kind have tried to turn this to advantage by having ruling and opposition parties on the basis that their disagreements will encourage and provide for desirable checks and balances.
But there again this adversarial system also has its roots in the divide and rule of the colonial playbook.
Four hundred years on, it may be time enough to start to work on practices that cultivate and foster a new approach to government in and for Bermuda.
John Barritt was a member of the House of Assembly for 18 years
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