by Sir Arthur Foulkes
According to a front page story in The Tribune last week, former PLP Cabinet Minister and veteran politician George Smith upset some of his colleagues when he publicly lectured them about the kind of candidates they should offer in the next general election.
It was good advice for both political parties but more so for Mr. Smith’s party because of present circumstances. The PLP was in a bind before the last election because not too many people thought the party stood a chance of winning. Neither did they. So they made many mistakes.
They accepted a lot of money from one particular gentleman, not expecting that they would be called upon to meet his special demands in the matter of a bank licence that had been revoked. That came back to haunt them almost immediately.
They made some platform promises apparently without carefully considering whether they could fulfill them once in office.
One of these promises related directly to quality of representation. That was the commitment to create “a new style of House of Assembly Committees which will hold public sessions before major pieces of legislation receive final passage.”
Not one such committee was appointed, even though there were many opportunities to do so, if only as a trial run on a particular piece of legislation. The indecently rushed legislation for the proposed National Health Insurance was a great opportunity.
The PLP also promised constitutional reform and laid out the process to be followed. They were utterly reckless and disingenuous when they promised: “This entire process of constitutional reform, from start to finish, can be achieved in one year.”
They must have known that was impossible. Even after five years that process is nowhere near completion.
One of the proposals directly relating to general elections was that “no changes to constituency boundaries are to be entertained within the six month period preceding the constitutionally-fixed date for general elections”.
Even without an amendment to the Constitution or relevant statute, the PLP Government could have shown good faith by at least trying to stay within their own time frame, but they made no effort to do that. The Boundaries Commission has yet to report and the election is less than six months away.
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Incidentally, it would be nice if Bahamian reporters would inform themselves about the provisions of the Constitution and legislation relating to the date of a general election before passing on inaccurate information to the public. It is not correct that the next general election must be held before May 2 this year, five years after the date of the 2002 election.
The Constitution, Article 66 (3), says that Parliament, unless sooner dissolved, shall continue for five years from the date of its first sitting after any dissolution and shall then stand dissolved. Since this Parliament first met on 22 May 2002, it will stand dissolved on 22 May this year if the Prime Minister does not advise an earlier dissolution.
The Constitution further provides that writs for a general election issued by the Governor General are returnable within 90 days of dissolution. However, the Parliamentary Elections Act brings it well within that period and sets the date for an election at no less than 21 and no more than 30 days.
So the next election can legally be held late in June, but it is unlikely for any number of reasons that a prime minister will take it to the wire. Prime Minister Perry Christie has already announced that this year’s will be held before May 2.
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If our parliament is to function as a modern legislature then clearly the political parties must offer qualified candidates who, should they be elected, will be able to function as ministers or to populate committees entrusted with oversight of the executive and examination of proposed of legislation.
Being qualified for the political arena and for holding political office does not necessarily mean having a college degree. Some of our most accomplished politicians, including Sir Milo Butler and Sir Roland Symonette, never saw the inside of a university.
There are some in our parliament today with higher education who seem incapable even of reading a speech convincingly, much less engaging in real debate.
Neither does success in other fields – the professions, the arts, commerce – necessarily amount to qualification for politics. Qualification for the political life need not be the same mix in each individual and can cover a wide range of abilities, talents, characteristics, knowledge and experience.
That is why the selection of candidates by political parties is such an important process, but a process with guidelines and considerations many of which defy being reduced to writing.
In the present exercise, the opposition has a decided advantage over the governing party. The FNM has a very small contingent of incumbents with little or no weeding out to do and a long list of applicants from which to make up a slate of 40 or more. It is just the opposite with the PLP. They have much weeding out to do.
All political parties are coalitions of one sort or another and tend to be fractious. Differences in philosophy can be a source of serious division; fights over the selection of leaders can be highly divisive with the selection of candidates running a close second.
The processes in both political parties are much the same and it is not as simple as, in the words of some commentators, “giving the people who they want”. Involved in each case are the party leadership, the constituency branch, the candidates committee and the council of the party.
All of these entities function as a series of sieves and while the common objective is to win, there are often conflicting considerations. The leadership has to think about the appeal of the whole slate nationally and about ensuring that there is a sufficient diversity of talent from which to mount an effective administration in the event of victory.
The branch serves as the party’s closest connection with a constituency, and its advice and consent are vitally important. Without an effective and committed constituency organization, the chances of winning are just about nonexistent.
A candidate can be very popular in a particular constituency and still have a negative impact on the overall slate. Back in the 1970s there was a wealthy PLP applicant who managed to ingratiate himself with the branch but about whom the party was not keen, and for good reason. He got the nomination and won.
It can also be that there is some things of a sensitive nature that cannot be publicly disclosed. The FNM had a case where not even the leadership was aware of a particular propensity on the part of one of its candidates. He was nominated, won and later became an embarrassment.
Politicians, being human like everybody else, sometimes succumb to the influence of personal animosities, the pursuit of vendettas and overweening ambition.
In each case all of these considerations are examined in camera by the candidates committee. At the end of the day it is up to the council of the party to sort it all out and to settle any differences that survive up to that stage.
The whole purpose of the exercise is to give the electorate the best possible choice of a leader and slate of candidates, and to give the country the best possible representation and governance after the election.