Over the last week or so, two to three PLP backbenchers have out-FNM’d the Official Opposition and been more of a vibrant opposition force on VAT and in questioning the proposed Constitutional Bills than the FNM itself has done. Those men—Fort Charlotte MP Dr Andre Rollins, Marco City MP Greg Moss and to a lesser extent Renward Wells—have, at least in these instances, demonstrated that they would not allow themselves to become just another backbencher, rubber stamping any of the Cabinet’s proposals and strictly towing the party line.
Due to the sheer size of the Cabinet—which is almost always more than half or nearly all of the government’s MPs—there has been perhaps the greatest effort that has had to be exerted in bending the legislature—i.e. those handful of backbenchers and Opposition members not in Cabinet—to their will. Traditionally, the executive has controlled the agenda of the legislature and the government’s legislative plans are hardly ever derailed. In all truth, in the Bahamas, because the Cabinet/executive overwhelmingly comes from the legislature and drives the agenda, our legislature—though seen as the law-making arm of government—has been somewhat dwarfed and dictated to.
I think that Rollins and Moss have embraced true Westminster politics, where backbenchers are known to question and challenge those members of Cabinet who are within their own parliamentary caucus on issues that are matters of conscience and to express the concerns of their constituents. An MP’s role is to make and amend new laws and query the government’s agenda, to speak for and on behalf of those persons who elected them and to assist their party in gaining the majority, in promulgating and contributing to their party’s development of political, social and economic policies. That said, their greatest obligation—in my opinion—is to their constituents, to place country above all else. What’s more, Rollins and Moss are not subject to the same limitations and this notion of collective Cabinet responsibility since neither sits around the Cabinet table.
In 2006, Henry Porter of the British publication the Observer wrote that he would like to see more MPs who are willing to “defy the party whipping system that is crushing the life out of Parliament and the spirit of MPs.” In another newspaper, Andrew Grimson made similar comments when he argued that it had “never even occurred to most of these so-called legislators that they were under a duty sometimes to express an independent opinion and register an independent vote.” For a long time, I have felt the same way about quite a number of local MPs—whether they were FNM s or PLPs. In recent time, I have become more and more assured that a new generation of leaders are asking the right questions, are more discerning and taking a page out of the book of the Dissident Eight and political juggernauts such as Carlton Francis who sacrificed self for country.
So, what happens to these young, defiant MPs?
Quite honestly, I think that Dr Rollins and Greg Moss run the risk of not being nominated in 2017. In fact, I have been told by people high-up in the PLP’s hierarchy that Dr Rollins will not receive a nomination for Fort Charlotte. Though he says he has no concerns about his standing in his constituency and has expressed his support for Mr Christie and the ideology of the PLP, there are still those within the PLP inner circle who argue that that would not be enough to make amends.
In recent weeks, the young turks have destabilised what is otherwise a nearly unmovable rock of a political organization. There’s no getting around it! Indeed, whilst the unkindest cut was meted out by Dr Rollins, who seemingly laid into individual members of the PLP and the PM himself. As one person said in the barbershop, Rollins is in political “beast mode” (a form of praise for his spirited stances).
I’ve given some thought to this all and I think that if Dr Rollins has issues with the PLP and its governing style, he should perhaps resign his post as Gaming Board chairman and either cross the floor, become an Independent or give the DNA its second Member of Parliament in its short history (the first being its leader and former Bamboo Town MP Bran McCartney). Whilst I believe that Rollins has a right to voice his opinion without being forced to resign as Gaming Board chairman because of that, I also know that he serves at the behest of the Prime Minister and therefore Mr Christie on his return from Las Vegas will perhaps seek his resignation or fire him. Now, Rollins can resign or wait to be fired but, I will defend his right to speak his conscience in our country, which espouses the ideals of democracy.
Could Renward Wells also be considering resigning or joining an Opposition force? There are some who say to me that Renward Wells is merely waiting to be fired and then he would either cross the floor or join another party, subsequently spilling the beans about the Letter of Intent and who—if anyone—instructed him to sign it. I, like many Bahamians, wait to see what will happen now that the investigative report is complete.
As it stands, with both the FNM and the DNA vying for Dr Rollins’ membership, he has become the highest valued political free agent—though a restricted free agent at the moment—in town. The PLP has to figure out a way to retain him among its fold and, if the DNA could recruit him, that would be a feather in their cap. That said, there are those who already see the doctor as a political journeyman and so one wonder’s if he will stay put—especially if he’s not threatened within the PLP—or if he will make the trek over to the FNM or the DNA. Admittedly, I have long heard that the DNA was in talks with Rollins and so one could also wonder if the groundwork has been laid to facilitate such a move. Does Rollins see the DNA as a viable force and if so, would be join the DNA without having guarantees of a convention where he could likely vie for one of the top two posts?
In a perfect world for the Opposition forces, snagging Rollins, Moss and Wells from the PLP would amount to somewhat of a political coup. If they all joined the DNA, the three of them in the House of Assembly would make for a more formidable opposition than the Official Opposition, leaving tongues wagging and automatically gaining the DNA much more public credibility and creating a scenario where the DNA would likely also be entitled to a Senate seat. If they joined the FNM, they could quickly bring life to a jaded, somewhat monotonous FNM parliamentary caucus that is not near as aggressive as it should be. The PLP’s backbenchers have, in my opinion, been doing what the Opposition should be doing, whether that be any of the observations that Rollins made about the PLP misleading of young people, old stalwarts being employed and given fancy consultancy/high paying jobs, the use of web shop monies on the last campaign, the rate of youth unemployment and so on. Even more, Greg Moss’ questioning and analysis of the Constitutional Bills started the ball rolling on amending the questions and his stance on VAT should have first been championed by the Opposition. Moss has articulated a vision that many Bahamians have bought into.
The Opposition has had a golden opportunity to advance an alternative VAT Bill or individual members could’ve sought to move a private members bill that seeks to offer an alternative to VAT—for eg, income tax— as a viable tax option. The Opposition and the most vocal government backbenchers should have capitalized on such opportunities to legislate, which would demonstrate an interest in advancing true alternative Bills, without merely settling for public displays of indignation and/or merely tabling amendments to key government bills. Whilst private member bills would be unlikely to pass— due to the parliamentary approach of applying the whip to ensure members vote along party lines—it lends to an aura of confidence and genuineness in one’s representation, as opposed to those who simply criticize but offer little to no options.
When the vote was taken to pass the VAT bill into law this week, the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance was noticeably missing and did not vote, having gone on what some are calling a birthday jaunt to Las Vegas, though one, in all fairness, must note that he was also purportedly performing his official duties. That said, on what is perhaps the most significant piece of economic/financial legislation in recent times, why was the PM—who also happens to be the Minister of Finance—not present to vote?
Frankly, with the country pissed off and everyone caught up in the hoopla of the proposed Constitutional referendum, the VAT bill was passed in a most hushed manner. Some Bahamians have been left with the impression that “a smokescreen was created” and that whilst the VAT bill was stealthily snuck in and voted on, by the time the country realised that the bill was passed, the PM was in Las Vegas on his second margarita! Here’s the thing, by the time that the full impact of VAT is felt, Mr Christie would long be into his retirement, enjoying his pension with a right to say that he never voted for the bill, that it was Michael Halkitis’ bill. And, guess what, he wouldn’t be telling a tale since he was not present.
Quite honestly, the implementation of VAT would be representative of a misguided policy, clothed in the sheepskin of economic reform which is going to create untold suffering for the Bahamian people, the private, industry and everyday entrepreneurs. I think that its potential to cause hardship would—rather than wiping away the tears from every eye as Mr Christie promised during the 2012 campaign—instead cause there to be an overflow of such tears.
Today, I’m going to forecast that VAT will either be repealed entirely or some aspects of it will be rolled back within the first year.
What would the PM do if referendum fails?
Considering the noise in the market, if the proposed constitutional referendum fails, Mr Christie should either return to the people seeking a new electoral mandate or perhaps resign and allow his party to continue on with governance with a new leader at the helm. If the referendum results in a resounding no vote—across the board or for a majority of the questions—it would be representative of two referendum defeats in a row, in a little over a year. Indeed, there are those—even within Mr Christie’s own Cabinet/inner circle—who have bet me that he will soldier on regardless of the vote or the resultant embarrassment if there’s a no vote.
We shall see what happens…