Democracy at work

The National Assembly has reconvened after extended holidays. So, once again the opposition has got back to the business of digging out information from the government side in a bid to bring out embarrassing facts to the surface. This takes the form of questions and answers in the traditional Westminster style. The first Private Notice Question was on the pricing of petroleum products on the local market. The objective of the newly appointed Leader of the Opposition, Alan Ganoo, was to show that recent local price rises of petroleum products were not in tune with movements in international prices.

From here on, he moved out to probe into the contract extended for the transport of our oil supply to the Betamax company, which the opposition has been taking pains since long to prove that it is a generous deal handed down to the company to the detriment of the public. Other parliamentary questions were more of a routine nature whereas one could have expected the opposition, after the prolonged vacations, to round up more probing quests for information on the management of public affairs.

All this is part of the democratic game. There is an underlying assumption that the opposition knows more on the issues raised than the amount of information disclosed on them in the answers provided by the government side. Insinuations are consequently made about half answers and incomplete information provided. It is then left for the public to judge whether, in the light of the questions and answers, the government is doing all it can and should for the public good. Interestingly, many of those questions would not have arisen if there had been in place a Freedom of Information Act, which would have entitled not only the members of the opposition but equally as much interested members of the public to obtain information on matters of public interest at source. It appears this is taking its own time to come and that, until then, we will need to remain content with the amount of information culled up through Parliamentary questions. This will tie up with progress currently being made in other respects, notably in terms of a more efficient administration of the work of the House, by providing relevant papers and data online to Members on individual desktops.

By the time the elections come, people have nearly no memory of the questions raised and the answers provided. It is difficult to recall a question and answer session in Parliament that has changed the course of local politics. Points are scored, no doubt but the fundamental mandates given to governments have barely been affected. Despite the temporariness of the storms raised from time to time, it is a tradition worth the while maintaining up to keep democracy alive. It upholds the principle of accountability to which a government is beholden. Besides, the period when there is no sitting of Parliament and there are burning issues of public interest to be dealt with show that the question and answer sessions serve as an important safety valve for pent-up feelings of perceived unfairness to be dealt with in this forum.

In the last session, tensions had been building up around proposed amendments to the Employment Relations Act, especially in view of the fact that the proposed changes in the legislation were despatched to Members at the late hour in the evening of the day preceding presentation of the amendments in the House. These will be tabled today, thus giving parliamentarians and trade unionists the necessary time to study the implications of the proposed amendments. Trade unions are of the view that there would be an attempt by employers, through the proposed amendments, to weaken employees’ right to go on strike and that this would be the real underlying objective behind the proposed amendments. The Minister, on his part, claims that the amendments are worker-friendly. By tonight, thanks to the free democratic discussions on the amendment bill, we will know where exactly lies the truth. It is decisions of this sort, more than the questions and answers, which have a direct bearing on electoral outcomes. People remember the actions taken by different governments and vote on their appreciation of whether the decisions were balanced or tilted in favour of a particular group.

The opposition, of whichever colour and hue it has been, has consistently been engaged in an exercise to demolish the actions of the government. Such is the profile of our different political parties and their capacity to melt into any coalition however that, despite all the so-called work of demolition they may have undertaken over the years, they end up partnering with the very same whom they have been criticizing for several years from the benches of either the government or those of the opposition. This has been repeated so often that people are gradually becoming conscious of the political power-play which has kept taking them for a ride from time to time. In our case, this is also part and parcel of the democratic exercise.

There have been a few occasions when governments, howsoever constituted, have broken new grounds for the good of one and all. Examples are when independence was secured, and democratic rule came along with it based on the principle of universal suffrage, when it was decided to give universal access to free education and healthcare to all, when the diversification of the economy was intensified to get us out of economic stagnation and do away with our geographic isolation. The democratic process has allowed us to renew ourselves as occasion demanded. One may complain that we have again reached a stage where creativity is said to be lacking, when self-discipline is not at its best and when the passion for doing better than we’ve done is not as strong as once it was. But we should not despair. The world is fast changing towards better and higher convergence of values and Mauritius will have to adapt to those values for its survival. It will be the saving grace of international democracy which should prevent us from deviating from the golden mean. We need to keep striving for better to come and this is what democracy is all about.

* Published in print edition on 29 March 2013

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