EDITOR, The Tribune.
Hubris is characterised by the possession of a potent witches’ brew of foolish pride, dangerous overconfidence, extreme arrogance and reckless ambition. At first sight it is hard to imagine one, much less all of these traits occupying the mind of the Member of Parliament for Bain and Grant’s Town, Travis Robinson.
Mr Robinson lost his parliamentary secretary job immediately after he lost his way and ventured off the FNM reservation on a crucial budget vote. Depending on one’s perspective and/or familiarity with or ignorance of our system of government he was either foolish or a champion of his constituents.
Some were already plotting behind the throne to get him back into the fold of his party, impressed as they were by his youthful zeal, his idealism and his passion. But then it quickly became apparent that he is impervious to political pragmatism and that he was intent on shooting himself in the foot if left to his own devices.
The MP sought and obtained permission to embarrass himself again on the floor of the House. Instead of atoning for his voting transgression, he picked up the rhetorical shovel and dug deeper.
The rookie, new to politics, took it upon himself to render judgment on a system that has served us well for many years, and some other countries for many generations. It is broken, he told the House, and is no longer relevant in the modern Bahamas.
Except what sets us apart from some others is our faithful adherence to those traditions, customs and systems that have seen us through difficult times. Its very strength is its consistency. As the late Hartman Scavella of Landrail Point, Crooked Island would say, “Times may change but standards don’t change.”
Mr Robinson wants Parliament to authorise a select committee to investigate not how the chamber operates but how our parliamentary democracy and cabinet government should operate. It was another glaring misunderstanding of our system. What he wants is within the exclusive preserve of a Constitutional Commission and good luck with that given our track record on tinkering with the Constitution.
The whip process which he defied is used by political parties to enforce discipline on their members. Nowhere in the Westminster system does it codify rules for the whip.
The Westminster model started in the UK in 1707 and it was 60 years later before the whip was first used by the Whigs (a political party) to enforce party discipline.
For centuries until 2005, the British people hunted foxes for sport. The objective was to set a pack of trained hounds on the trail of a fox. Because as many as 30 dogs could be deployed they were often whipped to stay in the pack in pursuit of the fox.
When the Whigs couldn’t get all of the MPs to reliably vote with the party it was suggested that they whip the members to keep them in line. The terminology stuck.
The Speaker of the House has no say over the appointment of party whips and is not subject to the whip because he must be impartial except when he must break a tie vote.
We have inherited a parliamentary democracy that has at its core the establishment of political parties. As elsewhere in life, from the boy scouts and girl guides to the lodges and fraternities, members who freely join are expected to comport themselves with the established rules of the group.
If they cannot support these rules and regulations they should resign and go and form another group of like-minded people.
The Westminster system is not broken. The practice of whipping votes is essential for the maintenance of stable cabinet government. The slimmer the majority is in a parliament the more significant is the whip’s job. Theresa May currently leads a minority government in the UK, meaning she relies on another party to vote with her party to remain in government. Absent the whip process and an already chaotic situation would be a nightmare.
We got our system directly from Britain, hence the Westminster appellation, but it is interesting to note that similar systems – parliamentary democracies with cabinet government – have been chosen by many others around the world including Caribbean, European and Asian states. Some (like Japan) are monarchies and some (like India) are republics.
One of the very few places where there is no need for a whip is Switzerland where most laws are passed not by parliament but by the people in binding referenda. Switzerland doesn’t have political parties so there is no governing or opposition party.
Switzerland had seven referenda last year including one to uphold a federal decree on how to build and repair roads. The Swiss can practice direct democracy because their people are highly educated, homogenous and voting there is compulsory.
Mr Robinson should indeed get his Select Committee if he is bored and looking for something to do. Its members should be limited to the four rebel FNMs who bucked their party’s whip and voted with the opposition on the budget.
Let’s call it the Backbench Vanity Select Committee.
July 8, 2018.