The primary vocation of a political party is governing. There is no doubt about that. Anything else is second best and therefore defeat. The constitution assigns very important roles to politicians who do not make it to government but government is where they all want to go.
And it is right because politics is a calling for action not for comment. There’s a lot of ‘saying’ involved but what really matters is the ‘doing’. And to do anything you need the means of office to realise your ambitions for your country and community. For that is the only gratification left to an honest politician: having tried to make a difference and in some way having hopefully managed.
Like market stall owners who earn enough to pay themselves a salary because their real reward is passing on the stall to their children when they retire, politicians are focused on the inheritance they leave behind: their legacy.
As they keep their eye on the prize some of them tend to forget that sitting in Opposition in Parliament is not a purgatory, or a limbo – I’m a bit uncertain of the more precise theological simile there.
In our system a role in the legislative branch is incidental. Being a Member of Parliament is almost never an end in itself.
That’s mostly because our Parliament is divided down the middle between people sitting on the government side (and almost without exception earning a second salary from an executive role) and people sitting on the opposition side like patients in a dentist’s waiting room.
This state of affairs means we as citizens are badly served and it often feels that is what we expect. Though elections are supposed to elect members of the House at City Gate, the electorate is singularly focused on electing the resident of Castile up the hill.
In the process we have weakened the institutions of our republic. I have written elsewhere how a chamber of amateur part-timers is not the right place to legislate for an EU member state, however small. We have modernised much about our administration in preparation for 2004: our customs, our taxes, our currency, our regulators and the list goes on. But our legislative branch remains a vestige of our colonial past where the colonising executive organised a debating society so the suited monkeys among the natives could let off steam. Suited monkeys would be British prejudice, not mine.
When the British left, as with every former colony, the newly powerful felt comfortable behind the walls of control the British had used against them. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Administrative stability, by all means a desirable thing, was used as an excuse to perpetuate the ineffectiveness of Parliament.
There were exceptions to this, all, please note, introduced by PN administrations. The Ombudsman was created to investigate without interference complaints of unfair administration and made to report directly to Parliament. Parliamentary committees were set up to create opportunities for deeper debate and engagement with experts and civil society. A Public Accounts Committee was set up chaired by the Opposition to scrutinise public finances at its discretion.
These were significant developments but all were short of addressing the deep-set issues of parliamentary amateurism: limited after hours working time, absurdly low salaries that force MPs to earn their living elsewhere unless they have joined the executive, dependence on the government’s lawyers for drafting of legal texts, a disproportionate number of MPs backing the government party employed by the executive instead of focusing on their Parliamentary roles, a general attitude of contempt for Parliament where everything is reduced to a dichotomy of black and white or a vague nondescript grey like the colour on speaker’s faces after interminable and droning speeches which no one except the transcriber listens to.
The rot was plastered over by more perplexing compromises.
Parliamentary Speakers are given the option on whether they want a full-time job or to work part-time, as if the function of the role is defined by the preference of the incumbent.
A number of smarter politicians have managed to fund their political existence through full-time civil service positions. Instead of paying these Parliamentarians the salary they deserve we pay these civil servants a salary that they don’t. It is odd what public opinion is and is not willing to accept.
Parliament has become the appendix of the constitutional body. A residual, symbolic rump that has withered as the rest of the framework evolved without it. And like an appendix we only remember its existence when something is wrong with it and it makes a bit of a nuisance of itself without really producing anything.
Its intended function has continued to be by-passed by referenda that short-circuit the constitutional decision-making progress as Parliamentarians abdicate their responsibility to decide and transfer it to ‘the people’.
Referenda are but the formal version of the real basis for contemporary executive decision-making: opinion polls. Decisions, even fundamental ones concerning minority rights and civil liberties, are taken on the back of the wind-vanes of public opinion.
The founding fathers of the United States hated the word democracy. In their mind it conjured an anarchic vision of direct decision-making by mobs unmoderated by reflection, research, institutional memory, debate and process. Those authors said they do not want to found a democracy, but a republic. A representative republic to be sure, where people with the professional responsibility to take decisions are elected freely but once elected are, for their term of office, burdened with the responsibility to decide on behalf of the rest.
For the republic to function, representatives chosen must reflect a broad range of views. They must balance continuity with innovation. And they must find things to disagree on in order to make meaningful progress. Without debate and disagreement – without dialectic, as someone else had called it – there can be no transparent reflection on all sides of an issue. And if they were to simply rubber-stamp what the majority felt like on any given day, there would be no need for representatives. We could legislate by polling and simply employ people to implement today’s popular will.
Therein lies the road to disaster. And we’re driving on it at considerable speed.
I do not dislike the word democracy like the US founding fathers did. But I do dislike the exploitation of the term to serve ends that are anything but democratic. Parliaments, and by extension, political parties are necessary to moderate the mood of the crowd and to take a long-term view of public interest. The rules of our democracy ensure that periodically decision makers are hired and fired. But the hiring and firing alone does not get anything done.
Perhaps all the talk about new brooms sweeping clean that is making the rounds these days should remember that all tyrants were elected by plebiscite on the strength of their battle cry to clear the swamp. Those battle cries make for spectacular crowd pleasing but do little in the long-term to further the interests of anyone but the tyrant.
The recent memory of Joseph Muscat bulldozing Parliament during the marriage equality debate (only the most recent of many other occasions) should be a warning to people who seemed to have found their own bulldozers now.
In a country with no proper parliaments – and proper political parties – tyrants flourish. We’ve had our fair share of those. Firing generations of politicians to replace them with new ones without addressing our institutional problems will not take us out of a colonial reality that should have long well and truly died out. Otherwise, plus ça change …