PURELY POLITICAL: The 375th and onwards
“This Assembly has shown itself amenable to change, whether such change has been forced upon it by the sheer weight of circumstance or deliberately engineered as part of the great adventure of nation building.” – Minority Opposition Leader Henry (now Sir Henry) Forde, 350th Joint Commemorative Session, June 26, 1989.
THOUGH CHANGE is said to be the one constant in this life, all of us as Barbadians ought to be happy that one of our most cherished possessions – democracy – has been resistant to any and all attempts to detract from its lustre.
At the centre of that democracy has been the Parliament of Barbados which is currently celebrating its 375th anniversary in a somewhat low-keyed style that is perhaps a refraction of a deliberate policy to acknowledge the current economic difficulties through the lens of a boastful, but justifiable pride.
Our claims to having the third oldest legislature in the Americas (behind The Virginia House of Burgesses, and Bermuda House of Assembly), and it being among the oldest in the Commonwealth of Nations, reverberate wherever the bell of democracy is rung.
Indeed, other not so fortunate nations gaze upon on the success of a parliamentary tradition (not always democratic) of this small nation in wonder with a “why-not-us-too?” look Sir Henry’s very position in 1989 as minority leader – an uncommon term in our parliamentary lexicon – was in a sense an outstanding example of democracy at work, having lost the position of Leader of the Opposition when a four-member group of MPs left the ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP) to found the National Democratic Party (NDP) and ousted the three-member Barbados Labour Party (BLP).
A pragmatist, student of history and our Parliament and Constitution, Sir Henry, perhaps above all others, would appreciate the vagaries of democracy that would a few short years after the setback restore him to the position of Leader of her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition following the 1991 general election that decimated the NDP.
At the 350th, he was moved to note that the Barbados Parliament stood out in the history of all nations as that which has the longest unbroken service of all institutions set up to govern the affairs of any country.
That is a proud record and one to which all Barbadians should rededicate themselves to preserving whatever the trials of this new century.
At 375, it is a time both for celebration and introspection, and an opportunity to look to the future of a Parliament that has shown itself to be amenable to change – not for some of us the harsh and gut-wrenching change from bicameral to unicameral, or (God forbid, an elected Senate), but subtler far more sophisticated change to embrace the rushing avalanche of modern technology for the advantage of MPs.
There are already some indicators that pockets of resistance exist within the executive to the use of information technology to get the people’s business from Parliament to their homes, bars and other meeting centres.
It may not be that there are Philistines among us in this regard, but, (and I hope I am right) the objection to streaming live meetings of special committees of Parliament may simply be a politician’s reflective action to deny an opponent a perceived advantage and thereby reduce the risk of exposure and possible harm.
Still, the days of a cloistered Parliament sitting away from the people – except for a few red letter calendar days – Throne Speech, Budget Day and Estimates Debate – behind closed doors permitting entry only to a limited number of “strangers” must be heading to a close.
The intrusion of technology, both audio and visual, will prove irresistible to the modern MP, whose muted cell phones are already sitting on their desks, while their notes and speeches can easily be scrolled down on the tablets at their fingertips.
I am aware of the existence of an ICT Strategic Plan for the Parliament of Barbados, the vision for which is the use of appropriate ICTs to enable effective service to MPs by efficiently managing internal processes, while providing access to timely and accurate information and engaging the public in the parliamentary processes for the good governance of the country.
We cannot be too far away from a change in the historic view of Parliament as a debating chamber where the executive works its will on a pliant legislature still trying to assert itself as an equal partner in the tripartite governance rrangement (dear Lizzie aside).
As I have said elsewhere, the primacy of Parliament has to be restored but it is not going to be done by an executive whose power reach extends even into the symbolic Coleridge Street. So it has to be the goal of conscious MPs whose independence from the powers in Bay Street is self-evident and who care more about the people than their parties.
For my own part, an association with the Parliament of Barbados stretching over 30 years has been both an education and a joy, even if tinged with a moment or two of disappointment in the actions of another human being long consigned to the dustbin of history and whose memory now will be a mere footnote.
It struck me that on my return from studying in the United States, the first major assignment was to cover the rare special session on June 25, 1989 commemorating the 350th anniversary, and it’s God’s will that I’ll be part of the 375th observances as well.
Long live the Parliament of Barbados!!
Albert Brandford is an independent political correspondent. Email: [email protected]