By David Comissiong
David Comissiong is an attorney-at-law, and a former senator in the Parliament of Barbados. He is the current chairman of the Caribbean Pan-African Network (CPAN) and was the inaugural Director of the Barbados Government’s Commission for Pan-African Affairs. This slightly revised version was first carried on 1804caribvoices.org on February 6, 2015.
Virtually the entire Caribbean Community (CARICOM) region is in crisis, and at the heart of the crisis are dysfunctional and corrupt Governments. It has now become plain for all to see that the so-called “Westminster two party political system” that was conferred upon our Caribbean nations as they moved into Independence has turned out to be fundamentally flawed.
The fundamental flaw consists of the fact that the system permits the powerful institution of Government to be held hostage and used as an instrument of personal financial profiteering by venal politicians, without adequate provision being made for interventions by the citizenry to hold politicians accountable or to punish them with dismissal when their behaviour so merits. Indeed, the only intervention that the Westminster system permits is a once every five-year intervention at General Election time, and this is clearly not good enough.
All across the Caribbean there is sickening evidence of patently corrupt, inept, or dysfunctional Governmen-tal administrations on the one hand, and powerless and distraught citizenries on the other hand. A case in point is the nation of St Kitts and Nevis, where a callous and dysfunctional Government administration has abused Parliament, and by extension the people of the nation, by brazenly refusing to debate a “No Confidence Motion” that the Parliamentary opposition has tabled against the Government. For some two years, the Denzil Douglas administration simply stymied and frustrated the parliamentary process for their own narrow self-serving ends, and the people of St Kitts and Nevis were powerless to intervene and do anything about it.
A similar situation exists in Guyana, where the Ramotar administration has deliberately set out to frustrate a “No Confidence Motion” by simply refusing to allow Parliament to meet at all. The President has called a May election but Parliament has not yet been dissolved. And here again, the system of governance does not permit the citizens of Guyana to intervene in order to do anything about this totally unacceptable state of affairs that has the nation bogged down and in a state of limbo.
In Barbados, we have our own crisis of dysfunction and lack of accountability, afflicted as we are with a Governmental administration that has broken virtually every single promise that it made to the electorate: a callous Government that even now proposes to throw the Parliamentary system into dysfunction by rejecting the Opposition’s call for the removal of a House of Assembly Speaker who is caught up in tawdry legal proceedings that reflect extremely poorly upon him. And once again, needless to say, the people of Barbados are powerless to intervene or to dismiss or punish any of the offending parties outside of a once every five year General Election.
But abuse of power and lack of performance are not the only sins that characterize our fundamentally flawed “Westminster two party System.” There is also the problem of widespread corruption and pilfering of public resources. From The Bahamas in the north to Suriname and Guyana in the south, this is a serious problem that is undermining the welfare of our nations: and with this as well, the system of governance does not permit the people to intervene, to dismiss or punish anyone.
In Trinidad and Tobago there is a governmental administration that is so steeped in politically and morally reprehensible behaviour that in less than one term, no less than seven Ministers of government have been exposed and disgraced: namely, the former Minister of Social Development, Glenn Ramdharsingh; the former Minister of National Security, Jack Warner; the former Minister of Planning, Mary King; the former Minister of Justice, Herbert Volney; the former Minister of Tourism, Chandresh Sharma; the former Minister of Sports, Anil Roberts; and another former Minister of National Security, Collin Partap.
Clearly, an administration with this type of record is not fit to continue to hold the reins of governmental power. But alas, the Westminster system of governance does not permit the people of Trinidad and Tobago to intervene and do anything about this unacceptable state of affairs, outside of a once every five years General Elections.
As we all know, a “Democracy” is supposed to consist of “a government of the people, by the people, for the people”. In other words, the Government is supposed to belong to the people and to serve the interests of the people, rather than to belong to and serve the interest of a narrow political class. Thus, where the circumstances demand it, the people should always have the constitutional power to intervene in governance affairs and to hold accountable, punish and, if necessary, dismiss, politicians and political administrations that have slipped into corruption and/or self-serving abuse of power.
There can be no doubt about it, therefore, that the key to the future development of our CARICOM nations is fundamental constitutional reform that is designed to equip our governance structures with mechanisms that would permit the citizenry to be able to intervene and that imposed accountability and discipline on errant governing and opposition politicians.
I therefore wish to send out an appeal to all of my Caribbean brothers and sisters. Let us set our hearts and minds on reforming our national systems of governance and molding them into new systems that are much more “people participatory” and accountable to us, the people of the region.
Clearly, the first step in such a process is to devise a new “Model” for our political or governance system – a “Model” around which we can all mobilize. I would therefore like to propose to my fellow Caribbean citizens that a useful place to start in looking for a new model for our political systems, could be the nation of Switzerland – one of the smallest countries in Europe, but one of the most democratic and successful nations in the entire world.
Let us examine a few aspects of the Swiss model of people-participatory governance and consider to what extent we could adopt them here in the Caribbean. The principal features of the model that I would like us to consider are as follows:
- People Power Provisions: Under the Swiss model the people are not relegated to only expressing power once every five years. Rather, they are given a controlling power that may be expressed at any time through such instruments as the Referendum, the Veto, and the Popular Initiative. Certain extremely important legal enactments – decisions on the Constitution for example – have to be decided upon by the people via what is known as a “Compulsory Referendum”. In the case of other less significant legislation, a certain percentage of the electorate – either by collecting signatures or petitioning the Parliament – are entitled to demand that such legislation be put to a national vote of the people. And in similar vein, the Popular Initiative permits a certain number of voters to submit their own proposals for legislation (legislative initiatives) or for constitutional amendments (constitutional initiatives), and to demand that they be submitted to the electorate for consideration and adoption.
These instruments are also used to give the people a controlling power over government expenditure, since state expenditure beyond a certain amount must, at the request of a given number of petitioning voters, be submitted to the people for approval.
- Power of Recall Provisions: In situations in which a particular legislator, a Minister, or indeed an entire Administration is floundering, tainted by corruption or abuse of power, or is simply performing abysmally, Swiss citizens may also use the petition to gather sufficient signatures to force a Government to stage a Referendum or popular vote on whether such a legislator/Minister should be recalled, or Parliament prorogued and new Elections held.
This then is a model of democratic, people participatory governance that already exists and that has been tried and tested over a two hundred year period. It is also a model of government that has allowed Switzerland to emerge as one of the most progressive countries in the world. Surely, it is now time for us Caribbean people to reconsider our inherited Westminster political system and make a long overdue move on this critical issue of reforming our model of national governance. Surely, we must recognize by now that only People Power can save us!