PEOPLE AND THINGS: Setting boundaries
Recent comments attributed to consul general in Toronto Haynesley Benn have aggravated some sections of our community that believe that he was suggesting the DLP administration should “gerrymander” the boundaries relating to St Peter to give the DLP’s candidate a better chance of winning the seat.
Although the exact comments made by Benn varied somewhat from the foregoing summary, his intention was clear and should provoke some comment on the issue of boundary change.
The term “gerrymander” is well known to politicos and it is equally well known that it is an effective tool to help a preferred candidate win the seat. Simply put, the gerrymander is a tool that seeks to draw (or redraw) the lines of a constituency in a way that is advantageous to the candidate preferred by the body that sets the boundaries.
The use of the term “advantage” implies a somewhat sinister political objective since the effect of a gerrymander is to ensure a positive outcome without necessarily working to gain the support of persons in a community. It is perhaps for this reason that Benn’s critics have been offended by his statements.
However, criticisms ignore one important fact which is that he was not proposing that his government break the law in any way, shape, or form.
Instead, he was simply saying that the DLP should take the steps to convert that seat that any serious political party would take and this author has no argument with him on that point.
Moreover, in articles written prior to 2013, I was critical of the Prime Minister for surrendering the opportunity to alter boundaries in a favourable way, consistent with what was done by Barrow, Sandiford, Adams and Arthur.
The concern about Benn’s statement lies in the assumption that boundaries should be set in a way that is fair to both parties, or at least not in a way that is unfair to one.
This assumption is ironically not supported by the relevant legislation which speaks to the need to establish constituency boundaries that ensure that each representative is responsible for an equal number of voters. This too sounds fair since one would not want to burden one representative more than another.
The problem, however, is that people move regularly and in the case of Barbados, the population growth is noticeably skewed towards St Philip.
Boundary shifts are therefore required to redefine the geographic space to accommodate population shifts and while the legislation indicates that this should be done, it is curiously silent on the need for fairness, largely because this would require some reference to the political party which the constitution is also curiously silent on.
Notwithstanding the absence of any reference to political fairness, the convention in Barbados is that changes are approached in a relatively even-handed manner. Generally changes are pursued in either the second or third term of either administration and these have also generally added seats which have either been shared equally as in 1981 and 2003 or given to the opposition as in 1991.
Regarding the 1991 scenario, the Sandiford administration created a BLP safe seat in Christ Church (South) which it effectively handed to Sir Bernard St John. However, this provided “cover” for the DLP to strengthen other areas.
In situations where boundary change is approached in this way, it is unlikely that the government or the agency pursuing such could be accused of being unfair.
This convention has arisen largely on account of our political culture and also the fact that the body charged with making these changes also has a proud tradition of independence. The Electoral and Boundaries Commission (EBC) has three commissioners who are appointed by the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition (2:1).
However, these people are expected to function independently. This independence does not mean that the commissioners and the department they preside over are oblivious to political realities. This appreciation has been evident in decisions taken previously and one presumes that if the EBC considered changes to St Peter they would also weigh the political considerations identified by Benn.
Interestingly enough, the 2013 electoral outcome demonstrates that something odd is happening in St Peter since Arthur’s swing was – three per cent while his parties was +1 per cent and this does suggest it could be captured by the DLP (in time). Therefore in a situation where the DLP was thinking futuristically, it could exploit this legal mechanism as part of a planned assault on this historic BLP stronghold.
Our finer traditions of boundary change demands that in such a case, there should be a trade-off elsewhere that would be of benefit to the BLP.
This then is the difference political prudent boundary change and an intolerable gerrymander.
• Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).