Thursday, September 3, 2009

A strong political party system- why we need it in SI.

Hey frens,

Just another another piece of thought from me. It has been a rough week and since weekend is coming up I feel it is important that I re-visit the intellectual gym to pump some blood into my brain cells before the week-end fever deprives me of it all. So I deciced to talk about something we all know about so that I do not strain me old brain too much. Here is how it goes....

AS you are aware, Solomon Islands adopted a Westminster system of Parliamentary Democracy when it gained political autonomy from the British in 1978. It has a unicameral or single chamber parliament, which comprises 50 Members elected through a first-past-the-post universal suffrage system of voting. All rules and procedures relating to elections are contained in the National Parliament Electoral Provisions Act [Cap 87].

The Westminster system requires, by convention that parliament is to be divided into political affiliations so that there are ‘checks and balances’ to the system. In Solomon Islands this convention is paved by Section 13 (1) of the Constitution, where it states that ... “no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of assembly and association, that is to say, his right to assemble freely and associate with other persons and in particular to form or belong to political parties or to form or belong to trade unions or other associations for the protection of his interests”. This creates the necessity for the formation of political parties.

Not only that they are formed in exercise of people’s freedom of expression and association, but political parties form the very basis of the Westminster system of government. They determine and dictate the political status quo of the state and it is through their existence that the notion of ‘separation of powers’ between the legislature and the executive can be to the least distinguishable. As we all know, this notion of separation of powers extends beyond just the legislature and the executive, to include the judiciary, which is the third arm of governance under the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy.

Parliament includes the Sovereign and the legislature. The Sovereign in the case of Solomon Islands is the Head of State, who is the Queen of England, represented by the Governor – General. The Governor -General is “appointed by the Head of State in accordance with an address from Parliament “. In practice, the Governor-General has to be elected by Members of Parliament before being appointed by the Queen, upon the advice of the Prime Minister. The legislature comprises the 50 Members of Parliament, and the Speaker of the House, who himself is also elected by the Members to preside over sittings of parliament and to oversee other parliamentary matters relating to the affairs of Members.

Parliament exists to ‘make’ and ‘unmake’ laws for the good governance and prosperity of the people of Solomon Islands. Parliament is also responsible to oversee and scrutinise the work of the executive to see that it is responsibly expending public money and is held to account for its actions. In Solomon Islands, this role is exercised through the parliamentary committee system, the Office of the Auditor-General and also by the Official Opposition Group, which in practice may or may not include the Independent Grouping. In the current Parliament, it is quite difficult to determine whether a member is independent or not because while he is registered as an independent member he may also be a member of the government caucus. The only member that could be seen as ‘independent’ is the leader of the independent group himself, but whose following is questionable.

Within parliament there are various committees, known as the Parliamentary Select Committees, which could be either Standing or Special Select Committees. Standing Select Committees are permanent committees appointed by the Speaker of Parliament to oversee specific issues and tasks. Currently there are five (5) Standing Select Committees, namely the Parliamentary House Committee, the Bills and Legislations Committee, the Foreign Relations Committee, the Constitution Review Committee and the Public Accounts Committee. Special Select Committees are established by parliament to inquire, analyse or review certain issues that are of national importance. Usually, special select committees are adhoc committees appointed by the Speaker after a passing of a bill in parliament to deal with specific issues and to report back to parliament on its findings. Once the report is presented to parliament, the committee is dissolved.

An example of a special select committee is the current Special Select Committee into the Quality of Medical Services Provided at the National Referral Hospital. The committee was appointed after a bill was moved and passed in Parliament (for a committee to be established) “to inquire into and report on the quality of medical services provided at the National Referral Hospital and in particular how they are managed and administered and how they may be improved”. The functions and responsibilities of Standing Select Committees and other procedural matters relating to Special Select Committees are contained in the Standing Orders of the National Parliament of Solomon Islands, which could be accessed at the National Parliament of Solomon Islands website.

The executive is provided by parliament, as its members are also part of Parliament. Here, the ‘separation of powers’ is vague. However, it is more distinguishable when looking at their separate functions. The executive is what we commonly refer to as the ‘government’. This includes all Members of the cabinet and the government caucus; the Prime Minister, all Ministers, and government backbenchers (government supporters but non-ministers) and the whole of the public service apparatus. This is distinguishable from the legislature as the government rules the day, not the legislature which includes both the Prime Minister and his Ministers, government backbenchers and the Members of the Official Opposition.

The judiciary is generally the legal fraternity, which includes the court system. In Solomon Islands the highest court of the land is the Court of Appeal, and then there is the High Court, the Magistrates Court, the Local Courts and the Customary Land Appeal Court.

The notion of separation of powers, therefore exists inorder to achieve limited goverment. This means that inorder that powers of those in leadership or those who assumes authority and responsibilty are not abused, there has to be limitations. This limitation is measured by the separation of the roles and functions of the different arms of state and their spheres to manouvre. While this notion may be vague in westminster system of parliamentary democracry, the underlying principle is that the Sovereign or the Head of State reigns, but the government rules, as long as it has the support and the confidence of Parliament, which represents the people.

The confidence of parliament on the executive government is vital to ensure that there is stability in governance. Changes to that confidence will result in political instability or change of government. When parliament has confidence on the government, this means that the government has the number to rule. If numbers change in favour of the Opposition, a government can be voted out on the floor of parliament through a vote of no confidence, or is forced to resign. A government can prove that it still holds the confidence of the House if a no confidence motion moved against it is defeated. So in Solomon Islands political stability is measured in its obviouse sense by the frequent changes in government or political administration. While only one motion of no confidence has been voted and passed on the floor of parliament, that is when the Sogavare-led GCC government was voted out by a motion of no confidence moved by the current Prime Minister, Dr. Derek Sikua, then the deflected minister of education, only one political adminstration has been able to rule for a full term of four (4) years.

The common arguement is that the high political instability is due to a weak political party system, whereby governments are not formed along political party lines or policy manifestation. Instead goverments are formed after fierce political lobbying which involves large sums of money. There are also other pull factors related to the covetous effects of the ever enticing ministerial renumeration and entitlements. Individual Members are free to take sides or change political affiliation whenever or wherever they see it fit, based on thier personal or professional judgements. There is no strong longterm political party or group affiliation. Political parties are formed and often become superactive prior to national elections but do shrink away once the elections are over, though groups may be formed among wining candidates for the immediate purpose of electing a prime minister and the formation of a government. This situation gives rise to a very corruptive and politically vulnerable situation whereby a member’s loyalty can be used to bargain for greater economic returns. Moreover, disagreements on policy or development issues within the ruling group can often result in political disintegration and regrouping which could eventually topple a ruling government.

This political fluidity amongst elected leaders/politicians does not allow for sustainability in governance. It creates an environment whereby there is lack of profound focus and committment on putting policies into fruition, but to try and keep the ruling group or coalition together. Hence, energy and resources and committed to sustain peripherial concerns and development goals that meet the aspirations of the ‘rural man’ are ignored. In its excess, political ambition precedes national interests (as could be seen in the recent case of PEC) and the short-term goal of getting re-elected into parliament becomes the prime objective.

As briefly mentioned ealier, ministerial renumeration and entitlement is also a great factor generating a pull effect to the number game and political tangling, towards a ruling government. Minsters, together with the Chairmanship positions in the State-Owned Enterprises (SOE) and Parliamentary Select Committees carry very attractive packages. Hence, execpt for the Leader, members of the Opposition are regarded as ordinary members and are renumerated as normal with few or no further entitlements. Whilst, I see this as a contributing factor relating to the political instability in Solomon Islands, I must clarify that personally, I am in total opposition to the ever increasing MPs’ entitlements. For certainly, the seeminly infinitive increases in the Members’ entitlements is not the solution to the issue. The solution to the issue is not one that is monitory but rather ethical and morally related. Strengthening political parties will certainly create greater sense of responsibility and committment to leadership and governance, ensuring the convention of responsible government. Members strong affiliation to thier parties will rid off the tendency and practice of intensive lobbying aimed specifically at removing a political administration. Rather, Members will in the long run be able to realise and appreciate the importance of policy manifestation and the formulation of sound development policies and having common values, geared towards achieveing the greater common good.

Political parties, when strengthened and properly functioning, provide a vital link between the people, Parliament and the government. The competition for power of the state, exercised in the Parliament is a competition organised by and through political parties. It is party strength in the House after elections that decides who is to govern. It is the parliamentary party or parties with the support of the House (and the ability to ensure supply- the money to fund the state’s functions) that provides the government. There is no need for dubious political lobbying in the process of government formation.

If our political party is strenghtened people will eventually learn to vote along policy values rather on than on personal affiliations, choosing to vote for the political party that preaches sound and pragmatic policies that he or she can easily relate to. Thus, a stronger political party system will not only have a direct positive impact on our elected political leaders, and government system but will also to an extent impact on voters behaviour, which currently is heavily culturally-oriented.

The scrutiny role of parliament will be strengthened. And, in effectively carrying out its work Parliament will be able to strengthen the roles and functions of other oversight bodies such as the Office of the Auditor General, the Ombudsman and the Leadership Code Commission. It may also be able to establish a Code of Ethical Code of Ehtical Conduct for Members of Parliament to guide their conduct and behavour in the exercise of thier official duties and responsibilities.

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