Prime Minister's address at conference on Governance

Editor's note:
Last week we printed the proposals for political reform put forth by the People's United Party.. This week, we present a different point of view, that of the Prime Minister, Party Leader of the United Democratic Party.

On November 27th, the Right Honourable Prime Minster Manuel Esquivel delivered an address espousing an entirely different view - that government should be strong, and only minor changes are needed.

It should be noted that Ombudsman (The Ombudsman Act, No.7 of 1994) and Contractor General (The Contractor-General Act, No. 6 of 1993) laws have been passed, but never funded or enforced. There are many examples of laws being placed on the books and left to languish. One of these is the anti-litter law of 1991, which has been funded but never enforced, due to lack of political will..

Prime Minister's address at conference on Governance

On November 27th, 1997, at the conference on Governance held at the Biltmore Plaza Hotel in Belize City, Prime Minister the Right Honourable Manuel Esquivel gave the following address:

Any serious discussion on good governance must necessarily seek to rationally define precisely what we expect to achieve, identify the weakness that we perceive to be preventing us from reaching our goal, and develop mechanisms to eliminate these weaknesses. Every suggestion for reform must demonstrate that it helps to strength our freedoms and democracy.

At the outset, I cannot accept the concept embraced by some that good governance is achievable by weakening government to self-appointed experts who are accountable to no-one. That is the stuff of anarchy. Weak government is synonymous with insecurity, instability, and eventual chaos. I believe in strong government, but accountable government. I believe that the people at large are the ultimate authority, that they exercise that authority in an absolute way at elections, and that therefore they have a right and duty to be well informed so that they may wield this absolute power for the good of the nation. The governments that the people elect must acknowledge that they derive power from a contract with the people which transfers power from the people to the government in very specific terms for limited periods of time. The people must acknowledge that having thus transferred power to the government, government must be free to exercise that power in accordance with the contract. If in the judgment of the people the government fails to live up to the contract, then the people unilaterally have a right under the terms of the contract to terminate that government at specified times and in specified ways, and award that contract to another. In between these reviews of the contract, the giver of the contract, the people, must have the right to influence, criticize, support or oppose the manner in which the contract is executed, but they too are required to respect the terms of the contract. The contract is of course the Constitution. Its purpose is to secure the well-being of the nation and its citizens. There will never be consensus on just what specific actions of people or government contribute to our well-being, and which subtract from it. But there must be consensus that any suggestion of political reform must pass one simple test: will it improve the national well-being, or will it create new threats to the national well-being? This is far too important an issue to leave to romantic notions, Populist appeals, or reactionary ideas. There is an old saying that fools rush in where angels fear to tread. We must heed the warning of the great Liberator Simon Bolivar who declared " choosing the right form and nature of the government you are to adopt for the happiness of the people, if you should fail to choose rightly, all our new beginnings will end in slavery." It should be instructive that within a few years of Simon Bolivar's warning, Latin America's choice of republicanism had collapsed into dictatorships that would last one hundred and fifty years. As we look at what others do to govern themselves, it is essential that we see the whole picture, warts and all as they say. We may be attracted by their merits, but we must expose the faults and seriously analyze whether these flaws can lead to our slavery, magnified as they may be when transferred to Belizean context. Quite frankly, I see very little that is attractive in the republicanism of our Latin neighbours, and even the great republic to the North has been home to slavery, violence, assassinations, racial discrimination, corruption, rigged elections, pork-barreling, and back-room horse-trading. I say this not to denigrate, but to point out that what they have is no guarantee of improvement.

Since there seems to be some agreement that our well-being is more dependent on the human factor than any system, then our search for political reform and good governance should lead us to conclude that we need to find ways to minimize the harm the human factor can cause, and that this can best be done through rules for transparency and accountability, rather than through hopscotching around systems, all of which have strengths and weaknesses. Many of the suggestions being bandied about have not been thought out to their logical end results. As an example, some advocate the direct election of the head of government. This would lead to one of two results: the Prime Minister would be the leader of the majority party, which means that direct election would have changed nothing; or the Prime Minister would be of the minority party, which means he could not govern and would have to resign. How so? If the opposition under the present system can seek to overthrow a majority government by attempting to bribe members of their side, how much easier would it be to overthrow a Prime Minister who lacks majority support in the House? If motions of no confidence would be retained, the Prime Minister would be out at the first House meeting, and we would have to haveelections until a Prime Minister was elected from the majority party, which brings us back to where we are now. And if "no confidence" motions were abolished, there would be grid-lock at every important House vote, and how does that contribute to the national well-being? It would be a mechanism that encourages destabilization and economic uncertainty.

There are other suggestions that are merely bees in someone's bonsuch as changing the name Governor-General to President. Unless the intention is to create an executive president, such a change is merely cosmetic, and if the suggestion is to have an executive president, we have to ask "whatever happened to the concern about concentration of power?" Not to mention that we would end up with the same problems as the directly elected Prime Minister.

Then of course there is the question about the size of the cabinet. The complaint seems to be that the Cabinet wields majority power in the House. This has certainly never been the case with UDP Governments, as UDP cabinets have never exceeded 14 members. But even if we limit the size of the cabinet to a minority number in the House, is the suggestion that this would somehow get members of the House to defeat their own Government? The Opposition in the House has no cabinet members at all. Have you ever known the Opposition members to vote against their party's position in the House? The point is that Governments tend to get their way because the electorate demands loyalty from the party they support, not because Cabinet has the majority of votes in the house. While there may be other reasons for limiting the size of cabinet, that is certainly not one of them.

On the other hand, there are structural changes that can help eliminate the abuse of authority. This government has already passed a Freedom of Information Act and an Act to require the assets and liabilities of politicians to be made public. Legislation creating the office of Contractor General and Ombudsman now exists and will be implemented as funds become available. Other structural changes are being proposed by Government that would improve transparency and accountability by giving the people more say through their elected representatives. For example, we could institutionalize standing committees of the House to monitor the performance of Ministers and Public Officers and thus equip back-benchers to better represent their constituents. We could require that all international agreements be approved by the National Assembly, we could require that all major contracts be automatically published for public scrutiny. Many other matter which worry citizens could be enforced by legislation without having to alter the system. Few of them would require constitutional changes, and none would weaken or destabilize the Government, but they would more clearly define the boundaries within which government operates and they would create greater involvement of the people and their representatives in the affairs of the nation.

In the final analysis, we have a system that is tried and proven. It is not perfect, and it can be improved, but it is nevertheless a system that is the envy of many who languish under less enlightened regimes. We have a magnificent edifice that can be strengthened by adding to the pillars that give it strength and durability. Let us not build on sand that the rain of the unscrupulous can wash away. Rather let us build on the rock of reason that alone can secure the future for succeeding generations.

Prime Minister's address at conference on Governance

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