Not known for any great legal conceits or passions, David Souter, a justice of the US Supreme Court, distinguished himself by retiring at a relatively young age to return to life in a New England log cabin.
But in 2012, he stepped out of blissful retirement to take part in an interview at the University of New Hampshire’s law school. When the moderator asked the retired jurist what kept him up at night, he replied: “pervasive civic ignorance”.
He said he did not worry about a “foreign invasion” or that “there is going to be a coup by the military, as has happened in some other places.
“What I worry about is when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible. And when the problems get bad enough, as they might do, for example, with another serious terrorist attack, as they might do with another financial meltdown, some one person will come forward and say, ‘Give me total power, and I will solve this problem.’”
Four years on, Souter’s remarkably prescient forecast would be embodied in the words of a know-nothing presidential candidate who traded in and profited from profound civic ignorance with his statement at the height of the 2016 US election campaign: “I alone can fix it.”
A people who remain blissful ignorant of a nation’s civic structures as embodied in the Constitution, unaware of either basic mechanics or the norms and traditions of governance will become inured to, then intolerant of, tedious and superfluous workings of the democratic process.
In time, that unfamiliarity begets contempt of these mundane processes, leaving the people at the mercy of a creature who eschews those norms to the adulation of the crowd. Then the electorate becomes a crowd, finally an unruly mob.
It is this context that we welcome the reforms of one of these ‘tedious and mundane’ processes – the debate in Parliament to consider the Appropriation Bill which will make demands on the Treasury to support the Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure for the new financial year which begins April 1st.
That senior civil servants and heads of statutory corporations are called before the legislature to justify their annual budgets has been an invigorating wind of change and a shaft of bright light for our staid and hide-bound 380-year-old Parliament, the third oldest in the Commonwealth.
And from initial reports to us, we are encouraged by the public’s positive response. They have been more interested in the select committee hearings rather than in frothy debate in a single-party echo chamber.
They tell us that it its good to hear from permanent secretaries and those who head parastatal agencies. Most say it’s been “refreshing” to hear from a CEO, PS or head of department – public servants who often fail to account for their management.
We agree with the unscientific poll which suggests this format for Parliament’s most important money bill is good “for transparency and accountability, particularly when we see the issues being persistently raised by the Auditor General of the issues plaguing government department. Some people say taxpayers, who are paying hefty taxes, should hear how their money is spent… and not just from the ministers.”
Needless to say, we encourage parliamentary reform to gather momentum and additional features.
Not only the finances of the nation but all significant policy that is likely to become statute law could become the subject of future select committee hearings that take soundings from a variety of interested individuals and interest groups.
Sir James Cameron Tudor, one of the architects of the first post-colonial government, dreamt aloud of the day that call-in programmes moved to Parliament. His 30-odd-year suggestion, made before the Internet, has renewed significance and potential in the era of social media. Perhaps this might inject fresh blood into the anaemic Question Time.
One feature we would welcome is a Barbadian 21st Century upgrade of the Ten-Minute Rule Bill. Under Standing Order 23 of the UK House of Commons, any MP is entitled to speak for ten minutes to convince the house of the merits of they have introduced, with equal time to opposition response and a voice vote on whether the bill should proceed to its second reading. Perhaps Five and Ten-Minute Rules – even 90-second debate limits as our Canadian cousins have implemented – could treat the verbal diarrhoea that pours forth from some of our lawmakers who are too enamoured with the sound of their own voice.
These and other attempts at reforming our Parliamentary rules should not be too difficult for a band of highly-paid men and women who turn up for the job once a week – just as their legislative ancestors did for the last three centuries. One could fathom part-time law-giving when most Members of the Colonial Parliament were planters, too busy to run the 24-hour-economy that was Slavery. This is an inefficient and ineffective limitation on our ancient House that is utterly out of place in the 21st Century.
Our schools must be the next frontier in the political education of future citizens. We are grateful for the efforts of public intellectuals who have for decades sought to add to our general civics education, formerly and informally. Retired High Court Justice Leroy Inniss and former Deputy Speaker of the House Ezra Alleyne deserve commendations and thanks for making civic information available in the pages of a textbook and a newspaper column.
Yet, civics remains diluted if not buried in the social studies primary school curriculum, wholly absent in the high school syllabus. Daily our children recite our national pledge without having the full context of the system of government they have pledged to uphold and defend.
A democracy that neglects to teach the habits, functions and norms of civic life imperils its survival. “That is the way democracy dies,” as David Souter put it.
Cynics may dismiss the Estimates reform as a PR stunt. We prefer to see it as an initial antidote to pervasive civic ignorance and a nutrient for transparency and accountability in government.
We look forward to more such treatments.
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