By ALFRED SEARS, QC
FROM October 2016 to January 2017, my campaign team and I undertook a listening tour amongst stalwart councillors, branch officers and delegates of the PLP in New Providence, Abaco, North and Central Andros, Bimini, Cat Island, Grand Bahama, Eleuthera and Exuma during the campaign for the position of leader of the Progressive Liberal Party.
In each Family Island that we visited, we went to the homes of stalwart councillors, held group meetings with stalwarts and party members to discuss their perceptions of the party, their concerns and their recommendations about strengthening the capacity of the party.
To rebuild, reform and refresh the PLP, we are duty bound to review the structure and practices of the party and to propose corrective measures to ensure electoral success by the PLP in 2022.
The right to form and belong to a political party is a fundamental right, secured by Article 24 of the Bahamian Constitution. Political parties play a pivotal role in our parliamentary democracy. Political parties structure electoral choice, provide mechanisms for political participation and organise elected representation in the House of Assembly and the Senate. Invariably, the person elected as party leader will become the prime minister of the government of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas upon his/her party winning the majority of seats in general elections.
Therefore, representative government in The Bahamas is produced, shaped and determined through the two major political parties in the Bahamas, namely, the PLP and the FNM. The internal governance of the PLP is justifiably a matter of interest to the members of the party and the general public.
The PLP's constitution, in theory, calls for accountable leadership, independent and democratically operated branches, a council for stalwart councillors and island or regional constituency councils.
The constitution declares, at article 1.2, that the constitution is the supreme governing law of the party and all of its branches. The principal objective of the party, at article 2.1, is "to organise and maintain in the Parliament of The Bahamas the Progressive Liberal Party as the government of the day."
Opportunity to change or reaffirm the leadership annually is provided at article 7. That article declares that the annual national general convention is the supreme authority, which shall (a) review the work of the party, (b) establish new policies, (c) amend the platform, byelaws and the constitution, (d) receive reports of the National General Council and branches of the party, and (e) elect all officers of the party.
These constitutional organs of the party were designed to ensure internal democratic governance, accountable leadership and effective canvassing capacity in every constituency in order to win elections. In charting the way forward, the party must engage in an honest appraisal of how these constitutional structures operated prior to the last general elections and what changes should be made to ensure electoral success by the party in the future.
The branch is the most important unit of the party. Its main objective, in Article 1 of the party's byelaws, is to ensure that the party forms the government of The Bahamas and to ensure the election and re-election of the party's candidate to the House of Assembly.
It is through the party's branches that (a) an individual becomes a member of the party; (b) a stream of revenue is generated for the party from membership dues; (c) official delegates to the National General Convention are elected; (d) one member of the National General Council is elected; (e) members of the party to be appointed as stalwart councillors are proposed; and (f) prospective candidates for election to the House of Assembly to the Candidate's Committee from each constituency are recommended in writing. These functions of the branch are essential to maintaining an active organic presence in each of the 39 constituencies, hold the leadership accountable and ensure a robust machinery on the ground to give the party the best opportunity to win elections and obtain and/or maintain the government.
The branch is independent of the party's parliamentary candidate and member of Parliament.
The member of Parliament is not in charge of a branch, but is answerable to the branch. Article 18.3 of the constitution provides that: "Each member of Parliament is responsible and answerable to the party and his constituency branch and shall work with and through the branch at all times to ensure the visibility, smooth running and active operation of the branch but shall have no power to control the functions and work of the branch."
From observations during the listening tour 2016/2017, the basic and most important units of the party, the branches, were not active in New Providence and in many of the Family Islands that we visited. Where there were functioning branches, most were not functioning in accordance with the party's constitution.
In some cases, branches were not active since the last general elections in 2012. As required by the constitution, the branches did not hold monthly meetings; did not hold annual general meetings; did not submit to the secretary general in January each year a calendar of events and activities for the year; and did not submit quarterly reports to the secretary general of their existing fully paid up and financial members.
In many instances, branches were only revived and mobilised to elect official delegates for the national general convention. Undoubtedly, the absence of five years of active branch engagement, membership recruitment and community involvement in some constituencies contributed to the loss of the general elections on May 10, 2017.
Councils of Stalwart Councillors
The party's constitution, at Article 11, requires the party to establish councils of stalwart councillors on all the islands of The Bahamas where there exist more than 12 stalwart councillors ordinarily resident. The purpose of these councils is to have stalwart councillors to meet regularly to discuss the business of the party. There is no such council in New Providence or any island of The Bahamas. Therefore, the failure to institute this constitutionally mandated organ of the party robs the party of the wisdom, contribution and regular participation of stalwart councillors, especially those in the Family Islands, who cannot easily attend the monthly meetings of the National General Council which are usually held in Nassau.
Due Process and Election of Party Officers
The party's constitution, at Article 7, requires that there should be held every year, either in October or November, an annual national general convention. The Convention constitutes the supreme authority of the party.
Prior to January 2017, the Progressive Liberal Party had not held a national convention since 2009. Contrary to popular perception, a convention is not a celebration or a "party in the backyard". In fact, it is the only occasion when the party can change or affirm its officers and engage in a complete review of its operation, performance and capacity. At the national convention, five essential functions take place: (a) review of the work of the party; (b) modification and/or establishment of new policies, programmes and standing orders of the party; (c) amendment by resolution the platform, byelaws and constitution of the Party; (e) receipt and adoption of the reports of the National General Council and branches of the party; and (e) conduct of the election of officers of the Party.
The 52nd National General Convention was held on January 24-26, 2017, at Melia Hotel, Nassau, four months before the last general elections. For example, the conduct of elections for officers at the convention disclosed issues about due process and fairness which impacted public confidence in the party.
First, about two weeks before the convention, about 355 additional stalwarts were appointed. At the convention immediately before nominations for officers on January 25, 2017, the party's constitution was amended giving the leader the authority to increase the number of stalwart councillors "as he deems necessary". The appointment of these new stalwart councillors on the eve of the convention automatically conferred voting status on these persons to determine the leadership race. Our campaign team was not provided with the names and contacts of these additional voters prior to the voting at the convention.
Second, the voting for party officers commenced at 9am on Thursday, January 26. The list of eligible voters was not available at the commencement of the voting. After strenuous protests, at about 11am that morning, our campaign team was finally provided with a stack of papers which were purported to be the list of eligible voters, after scores of persons would have already voted.
Third, persons voted around flat tables standing next to each other, as no individualised booths were provided to ensure the secrecy of the ballot, as required by Article 19.1 of the party's constitution.
Fourth, access to the voting area was not determined on the basis of an agreed or verified list of eligible voters, since the list of eligible voters was not compiled until two and one half hours after the voting had commenced.
Fifth, it was announced in early January 2017 that the trustees of the party had conduct of the nomination and election of officers. However, the trustees were only given the power to supervise the conduct of the nomination and the election of party officers on January 25, when the party's constitution was amended.
In contrast, the election for the leadership of the People's National Party in Jamaica in September 2015 is instructive. Prospective candidates had to submit their nomination papers by July 20 accompanied by the names and signatures of 12 registered party members. The party secretariat sent out a list that it deemed eligible to vote in the elections for review and comments by the candidates. The actual voting process was supervised by the Electoral Commission of Jamaica in order to assure persons of the fairness and integrity of the process. The Bahamian public observed the process of the election of officers within our party and was able to determine whether it lacked fairness and integrity.
Island or Regional Constituency Councils
Article 10 of the Party's Constitution requires that the Party establishes an Island or Regional Constituency Councils on every Island or group of Islands. Such Councils should comprise the Member of Parliament, NGC Member, Branch Officers and Representatives and Stalwart Councillors. Their functions are to meet at regular intervals with the National Chairman and to discuss and devise a strategy to ensure that Branches on that Island are active, visible and functioning. During our listening tour, there were no Island or Regional Constituency Councils either on New Providence or any of the Family Islands, save and except for a brief period in Grand Bahama. The leadership's failure to implement this constitutional organ removes a vital link between the national leadership of the Party and regional groups of constituencies, especially those in Family Islands.
Currently, there are no councils of stalwart councillors or island or regional district councils anywhere in The Bahamas.
The net effect of the noncompliance with the party's constitution, as detailed above, is that it promotes the paramountcy of interest of leadership over the interest of the party, parachuting candidates into constituencies, appointing stalwart councillors and making decisions, without any real participation by the branches, the councils stalwart councillors and regional district councils, prior to consideration by the National General Council. These structural weaknesses in the party's machinery, alienated the party's base, removed the mechanisms to hold its leadership accountable and undermined the party's capacity to mobilise its resources effectively to win the general elections. We all, party officers, candidates, stalwart councillors and delegates, must take responsibility for allowing the party's affairs to be conducted in a manner inconsistent with its constitution.
In part three, I will challenge our party to make its constitution a living document and to implement a culture of servant leadership. The PLP must become a party with a cause again and a model of democratic governance. Further, I will remind our party to articulate, consistent with its core values, a national vision for sustainable development, expansion of the Bahamian economy, facilitation of Bahamian ownership of the economy and to ensure accountable governance in order to regain the confidence of the Bahamian electorate and advance the sovereign mission of The Bahamas.
• Alfred Sears, QC, is a former minister of education and attorney general. Part three of his column will be published next Thursday.