Monday, 07 May 2012 02:30
By Everton Barnes
This past Saturday I had an impromptu and very lengthy discussion with a good friend of mine, a bus driver who plies his trade in one of the most easterly communities in Antigua.
During the discussion, he raised a concept that I have often heard coming from politicians, particularly those on the opposition benches, but it took special meaning coming from someone considered a member of the ‘common folk’, which made this statement even more profound.
Several times during the discussion, he said, “we have to take back this country”. He relayed to me that he has seen his income steadily eroded over the last several years, while his expenditure has been climbing steadily. He expressed much frustration that the concerns of ordinary folks seem to go unheeded by the powers that be. In fact, he bluntly accused the government of being out of touch.
My bus driver friend seemed particularly peeved that calls for inquiries into the Fencing Scandal and the Wadadli Power Plant have so far fallen on deaf ears, and he is firmly of the view that if the people of the country wanted to have the matters inquired into, then the Prime Minister and his government, being servants of the people, ought to listen to the ‘voice of the people’.
“What bothers me is that this government has had a fair chance to prove itself. We the people voted overwhelmingly for them in 2004 and again they we elected in 2009. We felt that the Antigua Labour Party was in office for many years and we were not happy with many of the things the ALP government was doing. We needed a change, and we voted for it. But I must tell you, that I am very disappointed with this government,” he exclaimed.
He said all the things that the people of the country said they did not want from the ALP administration, things such as corruption, lack of transparency, that the UPP Administration came to office preaching against these ills, but it has itself outdone the ALP in these areas.
He pointed to the hundreds of millions of dollars that the government collected in taxes in excess of what the ALP collected, and yet the government, in his view, has not done anything tangible to bring down the cost of living to people like him at the lower end of the salary scale.
My friend gave a laundry list of issues about which he is displeased, but none caused him more angst than the refusal of the Prime Minister to inquiry into the Fences Scandal and the power plant.
“Even the minister who was in charge of the (fences) projects (Senator Winston Williams) has publicly admitted that there were wrong doings with the fences matter. He (Williams) told us that people may have gotten money illegally, what more proof than that is needed?” he asked.
I found the whole discussion quite stimulating especially when he said ‘we have to take back this country’.
This is how he explained the concept; a government is elected by the citizens to act on their behalf at all times.
However, quite often (and this situation, he believes, is what exists here in Antigua and Barbuda) the government becomes so caught up in its own survival, that many times the concerns of the people take a back seat, as survival (re-election) becomes such a powerful ‘drug’ that it consumes the government.
In his view therefore, the Baldwin Spencer Administration’s decision not to inquire into these two issues that are of critical national concerns, is a clear case of the government more concerned about its own survival and ways to perpetuate itself, than to inquire into the expenditure of hard-earned monies it collected in the form of taxes from the citizenry.
But my bus driver friend was not interested in a mere change in government or personalities. He wanted fundamental changes to the systems of government.
He wanted to make sure that whenever the citizenry become concerned about a particular matter in significant numbers, that the government must listen, but just as importantly, yield to the collective will of the people.
He wanted to ensure that there are systems, outside of general elections, when the government must respond to the wishes of the people.
Unfortunately, he was unable to go much further, as he received a call from the bus station to indicate that the bus was full.
I apologized for keeping him away from his customers and expressed a desire for us to continue the discussion at some point in the future.
As I mull over the points raised, I could not help but to reflect on the system of government we inherited from the British.
I remember writing a paper as a student pointing to what I believe to be a constitutional dictatorship that we have created with our constitutions in the Commonwealth Caribbean.
Prime Ministers under our system have unfettered powers.
Unlike in Britain where the constitution is unwritten and where there are centuries-old norms and conventions that provides a framework for the exercise of the powers of the Prime Minister, when we in the Caribbean adopted the Westminster-style system of government and a written constitution, we did not adopt those British norms and conventions, or gentlemanly behaviour into our application of the system.
Hence, a Prime Minister with despotic tendencies may practice such under the guise of ‘acting in the nation’s interest’.
Furthermore, such a Prime Minister doesn’t feel that he has to respond to the wishes of the people on any particular issue.
The problem is further compounded when one considers that due to our size, as in Antigua and Barbuda, the executive outnumbers those elected on the government side who sit on the backbench. Westminster anticipates a backbench that is larger than the members who form the executive that helps keep the government in line.
A Prime Minister therefore can ‘manners’ any of his parliamentary colleague who does not support the government’s point of view on a particular matter.
We certainly need to begin the discussion on an appropriate system of government that suits of particular situation.
The current system is flawed; it is non-responsive to the needs of the people.
But while we must recognize that the system is flawed, we also need men and women who are prepared to put country above self; not in words, not in grandstanding, but in deeds.