“No parliament and no political party in a democracy should be allowed to function without checks and balances”

Qs & As

The Leader of the Opposition

‘ A Prime Minister should never be oblivious to the fact that he is equally the alternative Leader of the Opposition ‘

By LEX

In our adapted model of Westminster parliament, the post of Leader of the Opposition is a constitutional one, as an alternate eventual Prime Minister. The Constitution provides for his consultation on various issues including key appointments and matters that are of national interest. It stands to reason that the LO and his responsibilities need respect both from the Speaker and the government benches, but is that applied to any extent? Lex delves into the issues.

* It’s the Private Notice Questions addressed to the Prime Minister that usually thrust the Leader of the Opposition (LO) into the limelight, but not much is known by the public about the role and responsibilities of the LO. How important is this post in the Westminsterian parliamentary system of democracy?

The post of Leader of Opposition is an emanation of the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy. The public hardly pays heed to that post in Mauritius though it is a constitutional one. It is an important post in that it allows the decisionsof government in diverse fields to be scrutinized and criticized if need be.

Leading the opposition is an extraordinarily difficult job in a system where the rules of parliamentary democracy are played fairly. It is an even more if not an impossible task in the face of an overbearing Speaker intent on shielding the Executive from the legitimate scrutiny of an opposition whose task is to level criticism against the policies or query malfeasance in the administration of Government and, even, to outline alternative policies.

We have seen what has been happening heresince the 2019 elections:the attitude of the Speaker is justified by the majority on the ground that the Opposition bullies the Speaker! Really? One may ask where the bullying emanates from.

*The framers of our Constitution decided that the LO should be a constitutional post. What could have been the reasoning behind that decision?

Precisely to drive home to both the majority party and the Opposition as well as the general public that no parliament and no political party in a democracy should be allowed to function without checks and balances. By making the post a constitutional one, the aim was to confer an aura of respectability on the post and ensure that the government of the day should be on the lookout for any impropriety that would be pinpointed by the Opposition and the LO.

*The respect that framers of our Constitution held for this post contrasts singularly with what obtains in Singapore. Neither Singapore’s Constitution nor the Standing Orders of its Parliament provide for such a position; the LO was previously considered as an unofficial role, and there had been no formally designated LO in Singapore’s legislature until 2020. What does this say about the type of democratic regime that the politicians of that time wanted for Mauritius?

Initially when the post was constitutionally established in 1968 it was thought that the role of the Opposition would not only be a vehicle to criticize the government but also to suggest solutions to the problems facing country. The Opposition was expected to act constructively and there would be consultations between the government and the Opposition on matters of general public interest.

One should not overlook the fact that the Opposition is the alternative government in a properly functioning democracy. When the Opposition suggested that there should be a national debate on several issues in response tothe Covid pandemic, it wasrejected by the Speaker although that was an example of a constructive opposition. But did it work? How would you expect the Opposition to be kind to or cooperate with the government or even the Speaker in suchcircumstances?

* Even if the Singaporeans have rather belatedly decided that they should formally recognise the post of LO, they are doing it the right way: their Parliament has passed a motion to double the LO’s speaking time from 20 minutes – which is allotted to backbenchers – to 40 minutes, usually given to office holders; he will also be given staff support and resources to perform his duties as well as receive from time-to-time briefings by the Government on confidential issues and matters to be determined by the Singaporean government. That’s an example to emulate, right?

Of course. In our constitution there are provisions for the Prime Minister to consult with the Leader of the opposition. But is that done? Do proper consultations take place?

* Our Constitution does provide for the President of the Republic or the Prime Minister to consult with the LO when some particular appointments have to be made at the levelof the Electoral Boundaries Commission, the Electoral Supervisory Commission, the Public Service Commission, of the Disciplined Forces Service Commission, the Public Bodies Appeal Tribunal.Even the Director-General of the Independent Commission Against Corruption shall be appointed, as prescribed by the Prevention of Corruption Act 2002, by the Prime Minister after consultation with the Leader of the Opposition. What’s the reasoning behind the need for consultations with the LO?

Does the Prime Minister of for that matter the president of the Republic even consider the suggestions of the Leader of the Opposition in matters of appointment to constitutional institutions?

Look at what happened as regards appointments to the Electoral Commission. Those whose names were proposed to the president are known to be sympathisers of the MSM and the president just rubber stamped the appointments and simply brushed aside the observations of the Leader of the Opposition.

The need for consultations by the Prime Minister with the LO as provided for by our Constitution is given short shrift. These constitutional provisions serve no purpose.

* There is always the possibility for “consultations” to bereduced to a mere phone call to the LO by the President or Prime Minister prior to the effective appointment of the concerned official. Would a phone call amount to a consultation as prescribed by the Constitution?

Indeed. According toavailable information, at times a phone call or just a note is sent to the Leader of the Opposition by way of consultation. In common parlance, since the word consultation is not defined anywhere in the constitution, consultation would mean a meeting between two parties to discuss and decide.

Section 1 of the constitution embodies the idea a democratic state. Since Mauritius is a democratic State with section 1 that provides a substantive right to democracy, it stands to reason that the provisions of the constitution in relation to the post of Leader of the Opposition should be given full respect.

* No Prime Minister would want to see the powers of the Leader of the Opposition enhanced especially those that could influence the decision-making process for appointments to crucial and sensitive posts lest that would make the government unworkable. That sounds reasonable, isn’t it?

It is not a question of enhancing the powers of the Leader of the Opposition by the Prime Minister. It is a question of complying with the existing provisions in regard to the post of Leader of the Opposition and not treat the holder of that post with contempt.

A Prime Minister should never be oblivious to the fact that if the Leader of the Opposition in the Westminster tradition is the alternative Prime Minister, the incumbent Prime Minister is equally the alternative Leader of the Opposition- that is if he manages to hold on to the leadership of his own party.

* In multi-party-political systems, if the opposition is an important part of the democratic process,good practices for political parties in opposition also need to be examined. But that has evaded scrutiny for a long time, except when the electorate delivers its verdict every five years.What do you think?

Yes, just like a government that practises opacity in the conduct of the affairs of the State and in the disbursement of public funds will not relish at the thought of close scrutiny of its actions, it stands to reason that an opposition with a culture and practices not consistent with the norms of good governance would also not want the people to keep tabs on its workings. Hence the need to equally carefully watch what’s going on in opposition parties and for their executive committee members to put questions to the leaders.


* Published in ePaper 1 April 2022

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