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Politics and principles

The Westminster system of parliamentary democracy depends on discipline, and a certain level of dishonesty, to work.

That's because MPs are expected to support the government's programme even when they disagree with parts of it. If they are Cabinet Ministers, they are free to disagree with policies or bills in the privacy of the Cabinet chamber. But once a policy is agreed, collective responsibility, the idea that all Ministers are equally responsible for all Cabinet decisions, dictates that they must support their colleagues.

MPs are bound by a similar principle. They are free to oppose plans in their caucuses, but once a decision is taken, they are expected to defend in it in public.

In a small Parliament like Bermuda's, this has its flaws. A small majority in Cabinet can force legislation through a party's caucus and the House of Assembly even if a majority of MPs are in fact opposed to it, but that's another story.

Proponents say this kind of party discipline is essential for the effective management of Government; if every vote were free and there was no collective responsibility, the result would be chaos.

And Ministers and MPs have options. If they feel strongly enough about a decision they oppose, they can resign, and the collective effect of resignations can be damaging to a Government or Opposition, as the defections from the United Bermuda Party have been.

But these actions carry heavy penalties and risks. If an MP votes against his party, the whip can be withdrawn, which means the MP is effectively suspended. Or the MP can be expelled or could resign. The chances of re-election are then very poor, no matter how much people admire the politician's principles.

Last week, Government MP Dale Butler explained why he, and no doubt other MPs, voted for the Special Development Order for Tucker's Point despite having strong reservations about it.

This happens all the time it is just rare for a politician to admit it, or to go into detail on why. But Mr Butler is right; it is about survival.

In Cabinet, the stakes can be higher, as he pointed out. One of the unforeseen consequences of the massive hike in Ministers' salaries in recent years is that it has made Ministers very nearly incapable of breaking ranks the financial sacrifice is too great.

And the consequences are too, as both Mr Butler and Mr Lister learned at the October leadership election.

Both resigned on matters of principle from the Ewart Brown administration. Both decisions drew general admiration as acts of courage.

But when they ran against Paula Cox, who did not resign, they were badly beaten. The lesson? The Progressive Labour Party (and the United Bermuda Party was little different when it was in power) rewards loyalty over principle.

Those who seek principles above all things from the politicians (and Mr Butler has taken a lot of criticism from those who do) should remember this. Doing the right thing now can mean a lack of influence later, at which point many far worse decisions can be made.

So the current system often presents distasteful decisions for MPs, and it would be nice to think that a different method would be both more honest and as effective as the current one. But no one has come up with one yet.

In the meantime, the public should not be too hard on Mr Butler, who can certainly be criticised for opposing the bill, but should not be judged too harshly on being honest enough to say why he voted for it. He was only saying what few others have the courage to admit.

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Published March 14, 2011 at 10:44 am (Updated March 14, 2011 at 10:43 am)

Politics and principles

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