Backbenchers and the numbers game
There's nothing like a pleasant dressing-down, Mr Editor, and I received a very nice one of those last week from a kind and faithful reader. She told me that I don't understand, although I do (smile), and only too well (smile), and from experience (smile, again). Politics is all about numbers, she wanted to remind me: always do your arithmetic if you want to know what is or is not possible.
I hear you. A 19-16 majority in the House on the Hill not only means that everyone must be in attendance when the votes are counted, but they must also be on board; not that this necessarily is a bad thing. It is actually a very good thing, I think, when you have a vigilant Opposition on the lookout and waiting in the wings. That's a positive to the Westminster system.
Of course, the Opposition cannot help but think just how much tighter it could have been had the choice for Speaker come from the government benches. That two-seat electoral majority would have been reduced to one. But that's to rub salt in an old wound. I won't.
The point is that with these sorts of numbers, the back bench does have a great deal of influence on the Government. Or could do. A lot depends on what is said and done in caucus. Mind you, we don't actually, really know what goes down behind closed doors.
You may be familiar with the philosophical question: if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound? Or as comedy troupe the Royal Canadian Air Farce asks: well, if nobody's around, where is everybody?
On the outside, if you are not on the inside. So we depend on what they tell us, which of course almost all of the time is what they want us to hear.
This is party politics and party discipline dictates that they present a united front. This sort of functional unity is needed in the Legislature if the Government is going to be able to proceed with its agenda. We all understand this. We may not like it but we understand it. Imagine, though, if all were free to speak their minds and vote freely. Hold that thought. For now.
Let's start with the easier stuff first — and this is the point I sought to make last week, and not for the first time (smile) — what we need to do is turn those backbenchers loose to fulfil another role they are supposed to play as our parliamentary representatives.
Government and Opposition members should be monitoring the executive, aka the Cabinet, like, well, nobody's business but ours. Cabinet decisions, projects, contracts and practices should be subject to steady and constant scrutiny. Playing watchdog also presents backbenchers with a golden opportunity to shadow ministers they hope to replace some day.
Sure, not everything will be under the parliamentary microscope and all of the time, but certainly the big ticket items and the controversial will be, and there will also be the “threat” looming large that anyone, at any time, could be called to answer for what they are doing. Or not.
That's why I believe the Sage commissioners were on to something when they recommended three such committees to bird-dog three sets of ministries. Plus there's also the very important role the Public Accounts Committee is meant to play in keeping a closer eye on government expenditure, past and present, as well as proposed.
Our MPs were elected to represent. So they should, Mr Editor, without fear or favour when it comes to the Cabinet and out in the open, in the sunshine of public scrutiny. Let's stretch the art of what's possible.
• Speaking of represent, someone somewhere has once again raised the issue of whether British Overseas Territories should have representation in the British Parliament, either appointed or elected. I have got to ask — as I know a lot of people will — to what end? At what expense? And who is paying? I expect this is how most Bermudians will approach the issue; that is with a sagacious eye to our pocketbook. Much like they have done in the past on the issue of independence.
I don't know how it strikes you, but it seems very much like OTs will be simply swallowed up in the Westminster whale. It's hard to see how this would make the Foreign Office any more sympathetic or accountable. We might be better off concentrating our efforts instead on trying to get a Bermudian in office on that other Hill overlooking the North Shore.
• Finally, speaking of accountability, it was good to hear from the KEMH chief of staff that one year on the new Acute Care Wing appears to be on target in meeting its goals, in particular, on shorter patient stays. But what people also need to know, and should know, is how this is all working out for the bottom line — and ultimately for us. A report to that end would be most useful, bearing in mind, and this is really quite incredible, that annual audited financial statements for the Bermuda Hospitals Board, mandated by law, remain three years behind and counting.
I probably don't need to say it again, but I will (smile): this is just the sort of thing that we need backbenchers to zero in on.