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Political behaviour and the system of govt
The recent statements by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar in the budget debate in the House of Representatives about allegations involving state corporations and political patronage by the previous administration have certainly raised eyebrows. Essentially, this goes to the heart of political behaviour and the system of government. However, the current challenges for the Opposition about these allegations is that they were also the subject of criticism by Dr Keith Rowley after he had been dismissed from the Manning Cabinet in 2008. Indeed, Dr Rowley took a principled stand against his former leader, Patrick Manning, and there were some epic verbal battles between them that have been recorded in the pages of Hansard and the video stock of the Parliament Channel.
In those days, the official Opposition and Dr Rowley were speaking from the same page, by coincidence and not by orchestration. That helped the cause of the then Opposition that facilitated their entry into government in May 2010. In some respects, the role played by Dr Rowley in 2008-2010 that helped to remove the PNM from power resembled the role played by Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj in 2001 that helped to remove the UNC from power. The difference was that Maharaj formed his own political grouping (National Team Unity) to challenge the UNC in the December 2001 general election, while Rowley offered himself to be screened by the PNM and stood as a PNM candidate in the general election of May 2010.
The role of the Opposition has long been a matter of some contention in developing societies that have embraced the Westminster-Whitehall model of government. The Commonwealth Caribbean countries have largely chosen to have Westminster-Whitehall constitutions that are based on a majoritarian principle as opposed to the principle of consensus. Under such arrangements, the Opposition is rendered useless until such time as they can earn the majority in the Legislature and turn the tables of political wilderness upon their opponents. However, when oppositions get assistance (whether orchestrated or coincidental) from disgruntled Government MPs, their effectiveness will increase. This was the case of the PNM in opposition in 2001 and the UNC in opposition in 2008 to 2010.
The Commonwealth Caribbean has represented a virtual oasis of political stability when compared to other emerging democracies in Africa, Asia and Central and South America. Apart from political abuses in Guyana under the Forbes Burnham regime and the overthrow of constitutional government in Grenada by Maurice Bishop, there have not been any other successful serious challenges to the political order in the region. The tendency has been to have peaceful changes of power after free and fair elections. Our systems of government are designed to operate on the basis of division, that is, a Government and an Opposition. This is the fundamental premise of the Westminster tradition. It has operated in the UK with great success because of the fact that it evolved together with British society so that no written constitution is required for its general working on a day-to-day basis.
The Opposition in the British political system is considered to be the alternative government and there is common allegiance to the Crown so that Her Majesty’s Government and Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition function on the basis of the potential for the reversal of roles. The Leader of the Opposition is made a member of Her Majesty’s Privy Council and is allowed briefings on Privy Councillor terms in certain situations together with Ministers of the Crown. In our systems of government in the region, the Opposition is usually regarded as the outcast of the system and there is little inclusion so that when oppositions do become governments they tend to offer payback to their previous opponents by denying that which they too were denied. The role and status of the Opposition, therefore, has been defined by such a track record.
The idea that there will be a turnover of power for the system of government to be deemed democratic is not a welcome idea for some political parties that have power. We have been conditioned to operate a political system that survives on the notion of the rotation of power, not on the idea of consensual power-sharing. The idea of an opposition connotes the idea of having to be at odds with the government which is a disincentive to consensus. This can be contrasted against the notion of those who have a majority of seats in Parliament and those who have a minority.
The current PNM Opposition have the challenge of attacking the Government on their current policy positions, while simultaneously having to deflect attacks made against the former PNM administration. The challenge arises from the fact that Dr Rowley’s principled stand against expenditure in Udecott, etc, is now being used by the current Government as part of their budgetary defence on the state of the economy. The Government will continue using these alleged indiscretions because they were also used by Dr Rowley during his tempestuous bouts of discord with former prime minister Manning. The public is watching to see what will happen.
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