There is a confusion of language and a misunderstanding of concepts on some of the basic features of Bahamian parliamentary democracy. Take for example the inaccurate notion that republican and parliamentary forms of government are not synonymous.
There is no comparison between republican and parliamentary. The proper comparison would be between republic and monarchy. A parliamentary democracy can be either and, indeed, most are republics.
India, Dominica and Trinidad and Tobago are parliamentary democracies and also republics. In Europe there are parliamentary democracies that are republics and monarchies. It is interesting to note that at the end of World War II the United States did not impose its form of government on a defeated Japan. Instead, they made Japan a parliamentary democracy while retaining the monarchy.
Parliamentary democracy is derived from an ancient form of governance, versions of which were practised by native peoples in North America and in Iceland. This does not mean that our system is “anachronistic” and “no longer suitable for the needs of our developing nation in this 21st century”. Incidentally, Iceland -- not Britain -- has the oldest parliament in the world having been established in 930.
That parliamentary democracy has flourished and evolved over many centuries suggests that it is a classical form of governance with a genius and practicality that many may wish to study and better understand before making rash generalizations. Its most fundamental impetus is a desire of human beings to be governed by their own elected representatives.
The term “checks and balances” has become a rallying cry cum cliché for many who seem to believe that the idea was invented at the time of the writing of the American Constitution in the 18th century. In actuality, the concept is much older, arising out of a democratic paradox and necessary tension: The need to give governments enough power to act while placing limits on the exercise of that power.
While The Bahamas has an ancient representative parliament dating back to 1729, we did not advance to responsible government – that is, cabinet government – until 1964. This relatively brief experience has resulted in some people making simplistic judgments about our parliamentary democracy. The genesis of these uninformed judgments typically arises out of ignorance or the limited or truncated timeframe within which the observer begins his or her analysis.
Take for example the silly and unfounded suggestion that our system is a constitutional dictatorship with the Prime Minister as inherently a de facto dictator with dictatorial powers granted by the Constitution. This is pure fiction. It demonstrates a stunning ignorance of the Bahamas Constitution.
Despite its common usage, the Prime Minister is head of government, not chief executive in, for instance, the American sense. While the Constitution does specify certain powers for the Prime Minister, especially with regard to some appointments which he makes in his own judgment or after consultation, the Constitution clearly states that the Cabinet “shall have the general direction and control of the government of The Bahamas and shall be collectively responsible therefor to Parliament”.
Whether it is to build a straw market or an airport, or provide medicines for chronic diseases or cars for the Police, it is the Cabinet that must make the decision in each case. Any Minister, including the Prime Minister, proposing a course of action or project in his portfolio must get the consent of his colleagues in Cabinet.
The idea is one of collective responsibility, granting power and authority to a group rather than a single individual. The rationale: a check on the power of the Prime Minister, the first among equals, and all other Ministers.
The failure of a prime minister to arrive at a cabinet consensus on a critical matter can provoke a cabinet revolt which can trigger another check on a sitting prime minister. That ultimate checkmate is a loss of confidence which can result in his or her removal from office by party and parliamentary colleagues.
Despite dominating Britain and her cabinet with an iron fist and will, Margaret Thatcher was dispatched from 10 Downing Street by colleagues who came to see her as a liability. The current film “Iron Lady”, starring Meryl Streep, dramatizes some of these events.
What befell Thatcher can happen in The Bahamas. While it hasn’t happened -- though Sir Lynden was challenged in 1970 -- does not negate the fact that our system allows for such a possibility and a number of checks on prime ministerial power.
One needs to take a wide view of one’s own history and the history of other countries when making judgments about political systems. Such a wider view might begin to dispel many of the misunderstandings about the nature and viability of parliamentary democracy.