Column: What Can An Independent MP Do?

July 16, 2017

[Opinion column written by John Barritt]

Here’s a question I often get asked: just what is it that an independent MP can actually do? The answer: as much as any other backbench MP, whether Government or Opposition, and possibly even more, not being bound by party whip or party line.

But this is no easy sell where party politics dominate. Nevertheless it leads nicely into a discussion on the issue of good governance as manifested in how our Legislature works [or not] for us, the electors.

The Bermuda Constitution Order tells us that the Legislature is there to principally “make laws for the peace, order and good government of Bermuda.” We’re familiar. But it also has another important role. It is also there to provide oversight on the implementation and operation of laws as well as on the expenditure of taxpayer money by the Government. We’re familiar with that too, are we not? Think here of the countless reports of Auditors General, over the many years of many administrations, which stand as stark reminders.

This where backbenchers come in – or should. Senators too, for that matter.

There is already one body of the Legislature that is charged with reviewing the expenditure of money: the Public Accounts Committee or PAC for short. It is comprised exclusively of members of the House of Assembly only – and that should be changed. Room should be made for at least one independent Senator.

There is also the annual Budget Debate which, in theory, is meant to feature a detailed examination of how Government plans to spend money for the forthcoming parliamentary year which invariably also involves a review of how money was spent in previous years. That’s the theory. The practice, sadly, has become anything but.

The SAGE Commission recognized the deficiency and recommended the creation of three legislative committees to oversee groupings of various Ministries. The recommendation was endorsed by the recent Commission of Inquiry.

There are those who would tell you that there not enough members to populate those committees. Nonsense.

If you subtract from the 36 members of the House, those who form the Cabinet [which can only be up to a maximum of 12], and the Speaker, that leaves 23 members. There is also an additional eight members of the Senate who could be available, allowing for two Cabinet Ministers and the President out of the total eleven Senators.

That is a total of 31 members to draw from. So it can be done. It simply requires the political will to make it happen – and a commitment, a commitment from those in power to putting in place a better system of governance that not only invites but encourages robust oversight whether it come from an Opposition members or from Government backbenches.

MPs should become more than just parrots of the party line or sheep to be counted on critical votes. Oversight is roll-up your sleeves hard work and an opportunity to understudy in a meaningful way a Ministry whether members want to be Cabinet Ministers or Government in case of Opposition MPs.

A commitment to a network of parliamentary committees was made by the OBA Government at the last election. It never materialised. The Opposition PLP is now promising adoption of the SAGE Commission recommendation and a strengthening of PAC.

There’s the obvious criticism: parties do and say what they think they need to say until they actually get elected into power. Promises are dismissed as platitudes which they are and which they remain unless they are actually implemented on becoming the Government.

There also those who think this not important. Or not as important as, say, the economy and doing what needs to be done to stimulate and provide growth.

There is a flaw to that thinking. It should not be either-or. It is that type of thinking that keeps us stuck on division when it comes to the challenges Bermuda faces, and will always face , challenges which will require a far more functional and decidedly less partisan approach from our Legislature.

In Part 2 – why.

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