Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Improving our democracy

Every so often we hear the argument that Bermuda’s political system is broken and that we need to find an alternative that works better. While alternatives do exist — even if they are not as plentiful as some imagine — none is inherently superior or more democratic. It might just make more sense to explore how we can fine-tune our current system into a more effective vessel of the people’s will.

We need to first dispense with the fantasy of abolishing political parties and returning to a parliament of independents. There is the first political reality that no party — not Progressive Labour Party, not the One Bermuda Alliance and not the United Bermuda Party — will pass legislation to abolish its own existence. Moreover, political parties are a creature of democracy, an inevitable outcome of vesting power with the people.

Voters will have shared ideas, concerns and objectives; they are far better positioned to have these addressed by coming together rather than lobbying separately. The PLP, for example, was founded to address issues of the working man and woman; the UBP, in turn, placed their emphasis on business interests. 

An alternative is the American style presidential system. One of its strengths is, ironically, also one of its weaknesses: the separation of legislative and executive powers. Americans elect their leader directly along with their legislators. But there is an ongoing challenge of providing effective leadership since Congress and the president often have conflicting priorities. Its elected bicameral legislature ensures every state is well represented but when one chamber is controlled by one party and the other by another there is an inevitable gridlock and the challenge to effective governance.

Proportional representation, the electoral system of choice for much of Europe, has a seductive simplicity: parties win seats based on the percentage of votes received.

Because this system is linked with multiparty systems, it is rare that any party ever wins more than 50 percent of the vote, making coalition governments necessary. One of the benefits of this system is that it makes collaboration across party lines an indelible characteristic of the political terrain.The downside is that when the political stakes are high, the collaborative thrust is set aside and instability can set in if coalition governments become difficult to form or sustain. Witness the recent collapse of the Dutch government and the inability of Belgium to form a government over the past two years.

The critique often made of our system is that it is overly polarising and embraces a winner take all structure. Opposing views are a critical part of careful and close examination of issues; the public, though, have become weary of the hyperbolical dimension of much of what passes for discussion and debate and I suspect, want to see a focus on resolving issues rather than who can shout the loudest, talk the most and get more media coverage. 

While the Westminster system is rooted in the winner take all structure — to allow for a party’s policies to be implemented — there is no reason why more collaborative efforts cannot be emphasised within the existing framework: greater use of joint select committees, parliamentary working committees, hearings on critical issues, etc. 

Our system is not perfect, but it works. There is no doubt it can be made better and we clearly have the opportunity to do so without abandoning it all together. Perhaps we should direct some of our energy in this direction.

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