Matters of The Moment
Governments cannot do whatever they want. They cannot act irresponsibly against the public or the people’s interests
By Mrinal Roy
Governments cannot do whatever they want. They cannot act irresponsibly against the public or the people’s interests. They are not voted to power to pander to their own or partisan party interests. They must abide by strict rules of good governance and ensure that public interest prevails in all circumstances. However, the reality is that too often, once in power governments consider that majority rule gives them the licence to do whatever they want and short change public interest and the people.
The onus is thus squarely on the people to ensure that the government and MPs are accountable and answerable to them especially on key matters germane to their well-being and the fundamental principles of democracy in the country. The oversight of the people on government performance and governance has to be continuous. It cannot be limited to the time of voting at general elections at the end of a term of office.
Poor governance, decried government policies, the lack of transparency and accountability as well as the subversion of democracy and its key institutions by politicians are some of the root causes of the growing disconnect between governments and the people. These are prompting more and more people across the world to take to the streets to protest against disputed government decisions.
Whether it is the gilets jaunes movement for economic justice, young school students from around the world clamouring for robust and urgent actions against climate change by governments or students and mainstream citizens demanding a new Constitution and a new democratic Algeria or fighting for their democratic or existential rights, people across the world are raising their voices to challenge and protest against the contested policies of those in power.
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Saving our homeland planet Earth
On 15 March more than a million school and university students in some 123 countries have gone on strike to demand that their governments take urgent actions to reverse the adverse impact of climate change on planet Earth to safeguard their future. The havoc and death toll caused by cyclone Idai recently in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi is yet another jolting reminder and wake-up call for governments across the world that they need to urgently act to stem the destructive fallouts of climate change on the planet and the lives of people and future generations across the world.
The students’ protests which spread across the world from Australia to America were organized on social media under the hashtag #FridaysForFuture (FFF) inspired by the 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg who is in her 30th week of striking on Fridays. The voice of one teenager has been echoed by more than a million students from all over the world. It is imperative that the clamour for urgent actions by governments is maintained.
Hopefully, the voices of the young whose future is being endangered by increased emissions and concentrations of greenhouse gases will keep building pressure on governments across the world to urgently take more potent actions and do what it takes against all those belching carbon emissions in the atmosphere. The prime object must be to above all limit global warming temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030 so as to save planet Earth from impending disaster. This would in priority mean ending the use of coal to produce electricity, phasing out the use of fossil fuels and significantly increasing the production of energy from green and renewable sources.
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Brexit: Breaking the crippling deadlock
Nothing epitomizes the intrinsic flaws of our democratic system better than the current Brexit mess. How can the people who voted for Brexit in June 2016 not be asked to vote on the tenor of the Brexit deal negotiated by Theresa May which has been rejected in two separate votes by a large majority by MPs in Parliament this year? How can Theresa May not submit her Brexit deal to the approval of the people to ascertain whether it meets with what they voted for or not? The core problem is that too often governments and MPs arrogate to themselves the right to act as proxy for the people. No one can usurp the paramount right of the people to decide for themselves on what is right and acceptable to them.
Once voted by the people, Brexit has become a punching ball among MPs and parties bent on leveraging their partisan interests instead of ascertaining that the Brexit terms negotiated by the government safeguard the long-term economic interests of the country and the people and are approved by the people through a formal vote. The last straw has been that the leaders of the Brexit campaign who promised to take back control over Britain’s destiny as a nation have been incapable of translating their inchoate vision of Brexit into a credible negotiating game plan and a viable reality. The Brexiteers have obviously been blithely misled.
It is evident that the Brexit negotiations have also been an eye opener for all across the Brexit divide. It has mapped out and enlightened people on the pitfalls and difficulties as well as the fallouts of an exit from the EU. In a joint letter sent to Prime Minister May last week the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry expressed their grave concerns about Brexit and called for a “Plan B” and a new approach to securing a deal with the EU. It must also be said that the botched manner in which Brexit has been handled by the UK government has been a cause of tremendous embarrassment for the country.
The Brexit mess in many ways depicts what happens when MPs monopolize the process without consulting the people who should have had the final say on something so important for their future.
No wonder, the Brexit narrative has been marked by so many twists. On 23 March 2019 more than one million people from cities, towns, villages and from all over United Kingdom marched in London demanding a new referendum on Brexit and the revocation of Article 50 so as to cancel the Brexit process.
On 25 March, in a bid to break the Brexit deadlock, MPs voted in favour of a cross-party initiative to consider alternative options to Theresa May’s deal by 329 votes to 302 to defeat Prime Minister May and take control of the agenda of the House of Commons. Thirty Conservative MPs rebelled including three ministers who have since resigned from government. MPs thus voted on eight alternative options to Theresa May’s Brexit deal on 27 March. The options inter alia included a customs union with the EU, a free trade agreement, holding a second referendum etc.. This exercise measured the level of support for each option in the House to help chart the way forward. The upshot is that none of the proposals earned the support of a majority of MPs in the House of Commons. However the two options which obtained the highest support in Parliament were the proposals for a second referendum on any withdrawal bill and a customs union. The Brexit logjam remains unresolved.
Amidst all this turmoil, Theresa May is still bent on a third vote on her Brexit deal despite opposition from MPs and the ruling of the House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow that in accordance with a convention dating back to 1604 “the same proposition or substantially the same proposition” could not be brought back repeatedly for votes in a session of Parliament. Theresa May has vowed to stand down as PM if MPs back her Brexit deal.
It should in particular be highlighted that in a sterling example of the role of a Speaker in a parliamentary democracy, the Speaker John Bercow, is deftly conducting the debate and proceedings on Brexit in the House of Commons in strict compliance with the highest code of parliamentary practice and with exemplary impartiality to the satisfaction of all parties.
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By-election: Costly aberration or lame gimmick
Mauritius also has its load of disputed government decisions. The Prime Minister has announced in the wake of Vishnu Lutmeenaraidoo’s resignation as Minister of Foreign Affairs and as MP that a by-election will be organized to replace him. This is not only flabbergasting but a costly aberration.
Why on earth should the country mobilize the necessary staff and print the required voting ballots for a costly by-election at the expense of the public Exchequer by November 2019 when the National Assembly will stand dissolved on 21 December 2019 and general elections would have to be announced by mid January 2020 at latest? The elected MP in the by-election will hardly sit in the National Assembly. Why then trigger a by-election razzmatazz? It all seems so senseless. It would simply be irresponsible for the government to do so in such questionable circumstances.
Apart from calling a spade a spade and causing discomfiture by his pointed remarks on the growth performance of the country, it is clear that Vishnu Lutmeenaraidoo’s resignation has set the cat among the pigeons. It will force the Prime Minister to announce the general elections earlier than he would have liked. The gimmick about the by-election allows him some leeway till August when he will have to call his own bluff.
The world says no to licence and shenanigans of every kind by governments. As is the case for Brexit or climate change, governments cannot do whatever they want in the teeth of the growing public outcry and elementary rules of good governance..The onus is therefore on the people and civil society to remain vigilant to ensure that public funds are not irresponsibly squandered and that common sense finally prevails.
* Published in print edition on 29 March 2019