During the 2013 general election season in Barbados, the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) spent millions of dollars on a propaganda campaign that was designed to convince the voters that the DLP was profoundly committed to maintaining all existing jobs in the public sector of the country.
They used the millions of dollars given to them by un-named wealthy “donors” on advertisements and public meetings in which they assured you that a vote for the DLP was a vote to preserve public sector jobs, and that a vote for the opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP) would be a vote for privatization of public entities and loss of public sector jobs!
Indeed, they even went beyond this and actually created additional public sector jobs during the year leading up to the general election!
Now, a few months later, the leaders of the DLP have callously and unabashedly declared that there are too many persons employed in the public sector; that over 5,000 of these jobs are being cut; and that–in the words of Minister Donville Inniss–the decision to cut these jobs was not a tough decision to make! This, mind you, is the same Donville Inniss that is a member of the largest and highest paid Cabinet in the history of Barbados – the same Donville Inniss who publicly rubbished the proposal that ministers of government should take a salary cut!
Well, there you have it! Once again you have been taken for a ride! Yet again, you have been provided with incontrovertible proof that your political system is a sham!
It is a sham because it is dominated by “big money” anonymously given; it is characterised by expensive propaganda campaigns rather than reasoned argument; it is becoming progressively dependent on the corrupt practice of exchanging hard cash for votes; and it is shot through with a pronounced lack of accountability to the people!
So, what is the solution? Is it to punish the DLP with your vote at the next general election? That is an understandable reaction, and is certainly a legitimate part of the solution, but it cannot be the totality of the solution. In addition to punishing the D.L.P we have to reform the very system of governance itself!
We have to set our hearts and minds on reforming our political system, and molding it into a new system that is much more “people participatory” and much more accountable to us, the people of Barbados.
And clearly, the first step in the process is to devise a new “model” for our political system – a “model” around which we can all mobilize. I would therefore like to propose to my fellow Barbadians that a useful place to start in looking for a new model for our political system, is the nation of Switzerland – one of the smallest countries in Europe, but one of the most democratic and successful nations in the entire world.
As some of us may be aware, the nation of Switzerland is actually a confederation of 23 sovereign constituent states. Most of these states, through quite small by international standards, are larger and more populous than Barbados. But what is most noteworthy about these small states that comprise the Confederation of Switzerland is that they are regarded are exemplars of people-participatory democracy.
So, let us examine the Swiss model of people-participatory democracy, and consider to what extent we can adopt it here in Barbados. The features of the model that I would propose for consideration are as follows:-
1. A Multi-Party System
Unlike Barbados, with its two large monopoly political parties, the citizens of the small swiss states operate at least eight political parties, each of which represents a distinct strand of socio-economic-political thought. These parties bear such names as Social Democrats, Liberal Party, Radical Democratic Party, Christian Democratic Party, Swiss People’s Party, Alliance of Independents, Labour Party and the Party of Progressive Organisations. The existence of this range of political parties affords Swiss citizens maximum opportunities for participation in the political system, and ensures that all significant strains of opinion that exist in the national population find expression in the national parliament.
2. Proportional Representation
The main reason such a range of political parties continues to exist in the small Swiss states is that these states practise an electoral system based on proportional representation. Under a proportional representation system, small political parties that are unable to win constituency seats in “first-past-the-post” electoral contests, are still allocated seats in the national parliament on the basis of the total number of votes they amass across the entire country. Barbados could easily establish a “proportional representation” system by conflating our House of Assembly and senate into one chamber, and by permitting the 21 senatorial seats to be allocated to representatives of the various political parties on a proportional basis.
3. Direct Election of Ministers of Government
The various ministers of government in the small Swiss states are directly elected by the people themselves! Thus, a general election consists not only of an election of citizens to sit in the House of Assembly, but also an election of citizens to the various offices that exist in the separate institution known as “the Executive”, or in our parlance – “the Cabinet”. Under such a system, the various political parties (or groups of citizens) put up candidates for the posts of minister of agriculture, minister of finance, minister of education etc, and the citizens vote for who they would wish to see heading such ministries.
4. No Cock-Fight Politics
Rather than a general election in a Swiss state producing a governing party and an opposition party that are perpetually at each other’s throats, it is actually designed to produce a national “Chamber of legislation” drawn from all of the significant political parties, and a separate “Cabinet of Ministers” that also comprises representatives of several political parties. The “Chamber of Legislation” is mandated to proceed with the task of making laws and regulations for the state, while the “Cabinet of Ministers” is expected to get on with the task of running the various government ministries. Furthermore, the two institutions “check and balance” each other, with the plans and proposals of the Executive having to be approved by the Legislative Chamber, and the ministers playing a key role in initiating and vetting legislation and regulations.
5. A Collegial Head of Government
Under the Swiss system, the cabinet ministers select or elect one of their members to assume the role of chair-person of the cabinet and therefore prime minister” or head of government of the state. However, the selected chairperson’s term is usually a limited one, and other ministers are also given the opportunity to serve as prime minister during the term of a government. In a very real sense therefore, there is a collegial head of government, with the entire cabinet performing this role.
6. People Power
Under the Swiss model the people are not relegated to only expressing power once every five years! Rather, they are given a controlling power which may be expressed at any time through such instruments as the referendum, the veto, and the “popular initiative”. Certain legal enactments, especially decisions on the Constitution, have to be decided upon by the people via what is known as a “compulsory referendum”. In the case of other legislation, a certain percentage of the electorate, either by collecting signatures or petitioning the parliament, are entitled to demand that such legislation be put to a national vote of the people. And in similar vein, the popular initiative permits a certain number of voters to submit their own proposals for legislation (legislative initiatives) or for constitutional amendments (constitutional initiatives), and to demand that they be submitted to the electorate. These instruments are also used to give the people a controlling power over government expenditure, since state expenditure beyond a certain amount must, at the request of a given number of petitioning voters, be submitted to the people for approval.
7. Power of Recall
In situations in which a particular legislator, a Minister, or indeed an entire administration is floundering or performing badly, Swiss citizens may also use the petition to gather sufficient signatures to force the government to stage a referendum or popular vote on whether such a legislator/minister should be recalled, or parliament prorogued and new elections held.
This then is a model of democratic, people participatory government that already exists and that has been tried and tested over a two hundred year period. It is also a model of government that has allowed Switzerland to emerge as one of the most progressive countries in0 the world.
Isn’t it time for us Barbadians to make a move on this critical issue of reforming our model of national governance?
David Comissiong is president, of the Clement Payne Movement
About David Comissiong
David Comissiong is a Barbadian attorney-at-law and political activist.