The opposition cannot afford to fail

The current quarrel between the government, the Speaker of the National Assembly and the opposition over the content of the first Order Paper (parliamentary agenda) of this new parliamentary year keeps us in the same mode that has developed since the last general elections: a government blustering its way in the hope of finding an opportune moment to call a new election and an opposition determined to close the noose around the government’s neck. The burden of the government’s present contention is that the opposition was wrong to place certain issues on the parliamentary agenda and the speaker is at fault for pandering to, if not encouraging, their whims when he allows them to do so knowing full well that either similar type bills have been tabled and/or that the president is on record as saying that he will not assent to any legislation that he and his party did not agree to and better still, did not have a hand in devising.

Of course, nowhere in this discourse does the regime take the blame for this situation, which has resulted largely from the fact that there is no operational forum for negotiating these matters. The so-called tripartite committee established just after the last election is all but dead and the regime seems in no hurry to reactivate it. If anything, the government appears to have placed its faith in its time-worn tradition of humbug and propaganda. The entire country knows the capacity of this regime to play MAD (use maximum administrative delay) and the Linden chairperson and committee members are now complaining of a similar disposition in relation to the recent Linden agreement.

But what the regime fails to grasp is that the structure of the relationship between it and the opposition has been fundamentally changed by the 2011 elections, and that this has made its usual delaying tactics largely redundant.

The opposition acquired its majority (be it, as the regime always reminds us, by only one seat) as a result of the many promises it made to its constituencies and those constituencies now require it to do all it can to do in parliament to fulfill those promises. The opposition cannot now go to its supporters and claim that the government has the majority in parliament and that, outside of extra-parliamentary activities, for which many have little stomach or are not sensibly economically located to publicly support, it can do little. If, in the absence of constructive discussion, this means taking legislation to parliament that the government then vetoes, then what more visible way is there to demonstrate the obstructionist nature of the regime?

Indeed, already the apparent do-nothingness of the opposition has brought the usual summer parliamentary recess under attack. One of the lessons that one quickly learns in these kinds of political administrative positions is that there could develop a perpetual chasm between what is desired and what is achieved if the required level of organisation is absent. It is partly for this reason that I am not one of those who believes that the parliamentary recess was too long, for in my view, if parliamentarians  are to be properly organised and informed, (particularly in our system where most of them are in full time employment) they need time to meet with and address constituency concerns (I am aware that our system only has a limited number of parliamentary constituencies, which is another issue the constitutional reform process had promised to redress), consult other relevant stakeholders and prepare position papers, bills, etc.

However, it must be recognised that the call for a shorter recess was essentially rooted in the expectations raised by the 2011 general elections and dissatisfaction with what had been actually achieved.

The regime now faces an opposition that cannot afford to appear to fail and it must adjust to this reality. Even if its usual manoeuvrings and noise impress its hard core supporters it will not be sufficient, in this new context, to intimidate the opposition into doing little, for to do so would be for the latter to court its own demise. Thus, the government must find a way to allow the opposition to visibly address the concerns of its constituents and to do so the regime will have to give it space to discourse and meaningfully participate in decisions that clearly address the concerns of its supporters.

This new structural positioning requires a fundamental shift in the thinking of both the opposition and government; by the former if it wants to keep and increase its majority and the latter if it wants to again flourish. This demands that for both of the major parties the comparative priority given to policy and ethnicity shifts significantly in favour of the former.

Easier said than done, but not impossible if the regime, instead of being persistently negative, (quarreling and running to the court with trivia), recognises that it is uniquely placed to show itself more policy competent than the opposition.  Indeed, it could creatively steal the opposition’s thunder even where some of the most controversial issues are concerned.

For example, rather than stating in a definitive fashion that he would veto any opposition bill relating to the benefits of former presidents, the president could have publicly suggested and then discuss with the opposition a more holistic approach which takes into consideration the remuneration of all public servants, including that of former presidents. Many Westminster jurisdictions, even those in our region, have established independent commissions to periodically consider public service pay and one suspects that it is only a matter of time before we will have to move in this direction.

At the political level, this would certainly have played to the concerns of many opposition supporters; have helped to show that the regime is not unreasonable, policy deficient or simply crumbling under opposition pressure; provided added value by dealing with the moral issue of a government being the sole decider of what it pays itself and finally, have allowed for an holistic solution to the continuous wrangling in the public service which has obstructed an agreed upon public service reform.

I still think that the major stumbling block to our moving forward is that some members of the PPP/C see personal jeopardy in every meaningful act of cooperation. Although idealistic, I believe that efforts such as I have just outlined would also have the value of helping to build the kind of environment that could lead to cooperation even on such controversial matters as accountability and transparency.

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