Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Is Our Political System Broken?

Every so often there is a call for Bermuda to adopt an alternative political structure, with claims that our current system is flawed, divisive, even undemocratic. Most proponents of this line of thinking have no clarity about what an alternative system would look like, rather they simply express the sentiment that “the people” should have power and not the “elites.” 

A few make knowingly futile calls for the abolition of party politics. Of course, the thinking behind this position is that the absence of political parties would eliminate political divisions. The critical flaw in this argument is that no political party is going to pass a law outlawing its existence. For those few small countries that do not currently have political parties they have evolved that way based on unique circumstances, without any legislation in place expressly prohibiting parties.

The main alternative system to the Westminster system we are governed under is that of proportional representation, where essentially, political parties receive seats based on the percentage of votes received. This is the system adopted by most European countries. Two elements are key here: (1) with more than two significant political parties, coalition governments become the norm and (2) because of the necessary ranking of candidates into the top 10% then 20%, etc, parties become more important in determining which candidates serve in parliament than do voters. If Bermuda ever gets to the point where a party is regularly elected without securing a majority of the popular vote, we may have to consider this system. Now is not the time.

Our parliamentary system has served us well and—with the exception of the power retained by the UK over the police, Bermuda Regiment and foreign affairs—we are a strong, stable parliamentary democracy. Every election since 1968 has seen the party with the majority of the votes form the government. In contrast, numerous UK elections have seen parties win large majorities with less than 45% of the vote.

We have a fusing of the executive and legislative branches which allows a government to more effectively carry out its agenda. All of the Cabinet sits in the legislature and the former are comprised of the party which controls parliament. It would thus take an exceptional set of circumstances for Cabinet not to have its way in parliament. The McDonalds fast food fiasco of the 1990s comes to mind.  What this means in practice is that the party elected to office actually has the ability to carry out the promises it made to voters during the campaign.

By contrast, the separation of legislative and executive functions, one of the hallmarks of the US political system is also one of the great impediments to accomplishing political goals. President Obama now has little hope of pushing through his vision of a reformed American now that Republicans have won control of the House of Representatives.

One area in need of reform is that of the Senate. Former Senate President Alf Oughton, on his retirement, reminded me of my critical comments about the Senate twenty years ago. I stand by those comments today. The rationale for a bi-cameral legislature is that the upper house would provide a sober second look at legislation prior to its adoption. The reality is that Senators appointed by a political party are obliged to support their party position. Perhaps more importantly, the balance of power in the Senate is held by three Senators with no political affiliation at all, with neither a party nor a public mandate. While their power is limited they can delay legislation duly passed in the House of Assembly by the body who has received a direct mandate from the people to govern.

Our system is not perfect but it provides a credible, participatory and democratic framework on which to operate. Critics of the status quo will need to carefully assess whether they have identified structural weaknesses in our form of government or whether there is a more obvious agenda they wish to pursue.

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