FROM TIME to time, one hears the suggestion that the Westminster system of government does not suit The Bahamas. In our opinion, the only reason that it doesn’t suit The Bahamas is because we don’t understand it and have, over the years, bastardised it.
The Westminster system in England has been developed over centuries in the UK parliament by conventions, practices and precedents. In The Bahamas, for example, as in many other areas of the Commonwealth, it has been codified in a written constitution.
Today, in our own parliament, we have a situation where the majority of Opposition MPs have declared that they are no longer prepared to serve under their present leader. They have elected Long Island MP Loretta Butler Turner as their leader and have received the instruments of office from Governor General, Dame Marguerite Pindling, who represents her Majesty the Queen, to make her appointment official.
The head of government – who in the case of The Bahamas is Prime Minister Perry Christie, is appointed by the head of state, who is the governor general. To be appointed prime minister, the governor general must be satisfied that he has the support of the majority of the Members of Parliament. Therefore, in addition to being Prime Minister, Mr Christie enters parliament as the leader of his party, the Progressive Liberal Party.
Now we have the situation in our House of Assembly where, after over four years of giving Opposition leader Dr Hubert Minnis an opportunity to convince his parliamentary colleagues that he is ready and able to mount a formidable opposition to the ruling PLP in the 2017 general election - a mere five months away – he doesn’t even have a united party behind him. All we hear of are squabbles among members, with some now declining to offer for re-election.
In a surprise move on Wednesday, seven of Dr Minnis’ MPs delivered a letter of no confidence in him to both Speaker of the House Dr Kendal Major, and Governor General, Dame Marguerite Pindling. The dissidents informed both that they had appointed Long Island MP Loretta Butler Turner as their Leader in the House.
We now have the absurd position where Mrs Butler-Turner is the Opposition leader in the House, but outside of the House Dr Minnis is the leader of their party, the FNM. That certainly is not the spirit of the Westminster system of government. Mrs Butler-Turner should be the leader of both.
Dr Minnis has now turned around and brought expulsion proceedings against the seven “rebels”. So instead of spending the next five months on the business of the people, Dr Minnis, if he gets his way, has put his own interests first and will probably spend the next five months fighting in court with his own parliamentary colleagues — which is primarily what he has been doing for the past four years.
This time, it is not the “Dissident Eight” protesting the leadership of the late Sir Lynden Pindling of the PLP, but the “Dissident Seven” protesting the leadership of Dr Hubert Minnis of the FNM.
“We acted in response to serious concerns about the performance of the leader of the opposition and those concerns do not go against the provisions of Article 53 of the FNM’s constitution in any way,” said the majority of the FNM’s team in the House.
“Indeed, to assert that they do is to put forward the notion that the FNM is nothing more than a dictatorship, where concerns voiced about the leadership are met with violent intolerance. That is a form of fascism. The FNM was formed as a check against such dangerous political overreach. We wish to remind Dr Minnis that we live in a democracy.
“The ridiculous suggestion that our actions were treasonous or undemocratic suggests a lack of understanding the difference between the political party and the state. Any accusation that our actions were unlawful would only be appropriate if Dr Minnis were a reigning monarch. However, we must remind all Bahamians that Dr Minnis is not a king.”
Obviously, Dr Minnis seems to think otherwise.
“What has occurred over the last few days in the FNM is the result of individuals who have failed to respect the democratic process of their own party,” said Dr Minnis.
“They have put their self-centred ambitions for leadership, and personal feelings toward me, ahead of the will of the people and the best interest of the country.
“The Free National Movement is not distracted. Our party remains the best opportunity for real, systemic change in this country. To our supporters in these seven constituencies, many of whom have contacted the party over the last few days expressing a sense of deep betrayal and disappointment in these representatives, please be assured that your party has not abandoned you.”
Now let’s look at how a similar situation was handled in the Westminster system of government.
The year was 1990 and the formidable “Iron Lady”, Dame Margaret Thatcher after 11 years as prime minister had lost the confidence of her cabinet — we shan’t go into the political background leading up to this. However, in the Commons, the question was whether to fight for her position in a second ballot or bow out of the contest. Her first instinct was to fight, but after consultation and reflection she made the following statement.
“Having consulted widely among my colleagues, I have concluded that the unity of the Party and the prospects of victory in a General Election would be better served if I stood down to enable Cabinet colleagues to enter the ballot for the leadership. I should like to thank all those in Cabinet and outside who have given me such dedicated support.”
She stepped down on November 28, 1990 and recommended John Major to replace her as party leader.
An election was looming. However, because of the unrest in the country it was doubtful that Mr Major’s Conservatives would have a chance at the polls. However, he surprised the nation when he led the Conservatives to a fourth election victory. It was reported that in that election he won the most “votes in British electoral history with over 14 million in the 1992 general election, with a reduced majority in the House of Commons”.
This is how it is done in the first world, Dr Minnis. Mrs Thatcher put the country before herself and the country won.
As someone remarked last night, if Mr Major could mount a crippled horse mid-stream and win, so can the FNM in five months.
We hope that Dr Minnis gets the message, backs aside and gives the Bahamian people a chance to have a government that will put their interests first.