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Opposition’s first loyalty is to the people

Disorderly behaviour has been witnessed both inside and outside the House of Assembly

When the term “Loyal Opposition” was first introduced in the British parliament in 1826, it was greeted with more derision than enthusiasm by legislators on both sides of the aisle.

This wasn’t entirely surprising. Until the early 19th century the duty of an Opposition was famously understood to mean it “opposed everything, proposed nothing and turned out the government.”

Simply put, the Opposition’s only loyalty was to itself as it pursued mercenary and self-serving ends rather than those which might better advance the public good.

But as representative and responsible parliamentary democracy evolved, the Opposition was called upon to play an increasingly central role in the political process.

Checking and balancing the administration of the day’s programmes and policies, scrutinising and challenging its actions, the role of the Opposition gradually evolved into that of a government-in-waiting.

The phrase “Loyal Opposition” is meant to suggest that while it might be intractably opposed to an incumbent Government’s agenda, the party’s allegiance to the larger constitutional framework in which parliamentary democracy operates remains unchallengeable.

This is true wherever the Westminster system has been adopted. So in Bermuda the Opposition’s first loyalty is to the common interests, aspirations and concerns of the community, not partisan one-upmanship.

At least that’s the theory.

But the Island’s current political climate is increasingly marked by polarisation, hyper-partisanship and a tendency to place party political interests above all else.

So observers could be forgiven for concluding the term “Loyal Opposition” has reverted to its original, derisively ironic meaning in Bermuda.

Certainly we’re currently witnessing more gridlock, partisan rancor and selective outrage than we’ve seen in many years.

It amounts to a programme of sheer obstructionism, of course, one fuelled by expediency and opportunism rather than any legitimate desire to participate constructively in the public debate..

The Opposition is taking its cue from the increasingly unpleasant — and routinely unhelpful — behaviour of its leader.

Engaging in misogynistic or homophobic tantrums when he isn’t busy savaging constitutional safeguards ranging from Government House to the role of the Speaker, his recent suspension from Parliament was as predictable as it appears to have been deliberately sought.

Certainly his constant attempts to portray himself as the scapegoat for others’ misdeeds — and his ongoing failure to accept responsibility for even his most incendiary comments — suggests more than a touch of the manufactured Martyr Complex.

Using disorderly conduct as a media stunt —allowing him to act out the role of sacrificial victim to Implacable Political Forces supposedly arrayed aginst him — seems to have been his actual objective.

Presumably the Opposition Leader’s media handlers advised him the publicity value inherent in courting a parliamentary vote of censure would entirely trump any and all other considerations. When it comes to pure electoral calculus, the political consultants might actually have a point. Even the most shamelessly contrived persecution narratives have, after all, been known to be rewarded at the polls both here and elsewhere.

But in terms of the actual role the Opposition should play in our political system, such cheap theatrics cannot help but diminish the entire process.

No one has defined that role better than the late Canadian statesman John Diefenbaker. In a celebrated 1949 speech, he said if the Westminster system is to be preserved as a living institution, then “the Loyal Opposition must fearlessly perform its functions. When it properly discharges them the preservation of our freedom is assured . . .

“It upholds and maintains the rights of minorities against majorities.

“It must be vigilant against oppression and unjust invasions by the Cabinet of the rights of the people. It should supervise all expenditures and prevent over expenditure by exposing to the light of public opinion wasteful expenditures or worse. It finds fault; it suggests amendments; it asks questions and elicits information; it arouses, educates and molds public opinion by voice and vote.”

But Diefenbaker stressed the Opposition could not oppose just for the sake of opposing.

Criticisms had to be based on reason. Counter-proposals had to be responsible and practical for the Opposition has an ongoing obligation to the people to provide a viable alternative government to the one in power.

But Bermuda’s recent experience would suggest a throwback to a much earlier time, one when the Opposition opposed everything, proposed nothing and was so entirely fixated on turning out the government that critical thought got tossed out as well.