By Jerry Roker
For Bahamas Press
When the term “Loyal Opposition” was first introduced in the British parliament in 1826, it was greeted with more derision than enthusiasm by legislators on both sides of the aisle.
This wasn’t entirely surprising. Until the early 19th century the duty of an Opposition was famously understood to mean it “opposed everything, proposed nothing and turned out the government.”
Simply put, the Opposition’s only loyalty was to itself as it pursued mercenary and self-serving ends rather than those which might better advance the public good.
But as representative and responsible parliamentary democracy evolved, the Opposition was called upon to play an increasingly central role in the political process.
Checking and balancing the administration of the day’s programmes and policies, scrutinising and challenging its actions, the role of the Opposition gradually evolved into that of a government-in-waiting.
The phrase “Loyal Opposition” is meant to suggest that while it might be intractably opposed to an incumbent Government’s agenda, the party’s allegiance to the larger constitutional framework in which parliamentary democracy operates remains unchallengeable.
This is true wherever the Westminster system has been adopted. So in our Bahamas, the Opposition’s first loyalty is to the common interests, aspirations and concerns of the community, not partisan one-upmanship.
At least that’s the theory.
But our country’s current political climate is increasingly marked by polarisation, hyper-partisanship and a tendency to place party political interests above all else.
So observers could be forgiven for concluding the term “Loyal Opposition” has reverted to its original, derisively ironic meaning in The Bahamas.
Certainly, because the Leader of the Opposition is so consumed by his efforts to maintain control of his party, he has precious little time to attend to, in any meaningful way, issues of national import. Even before the serious cracks in his party’s armour became common knowledge, the model he seemed to have chosen, in conducting his constitutional duties is the 19th century British model: ” oppose everything, propose nothing…”
But in terms of the actual role the Opposition should play in our political system, such cheap behaviour cannot help but diminish the entire process.
If the Westminster system is to be preserved as a living institution, then “the Loyal Opposition must fearlessly perform its functions. When it properly discharges them the preservation of our freedom is assured . . .
It finds fault; it suggests amendments; it asks questions and elicits information; it arouses, educates and molds public opinion by voice and vote.
I must stress that the Opposition ought not oppose just for the sake of opposing.
Criticisms have to be based on reason. Counter-proposals have to be responsible and practical for the Opposition has an ongoing obligation to the people to provide a viable alternative government to the one in power.
Unfortunately, the Opposition’s behaviour would suggest a throwback to a much earlier time, one when the Opposition opposed everything, proposed nothing and was so entirely fixated on turning out the government that critical thought got tossed out as well.