Commentary by Rev. Dr. William W. Watty
Whatever the motivation, whatever the expectations, both the Prime Minister's initiative in inviting the Parliamentary Opposition to participation in the post-"Erika" recovery programme and the positive response of the Leader of the Opposition deserve high commendation. It is, if nothing else, a leap forward towards political maturity. It is a step in the right direction and, as far as I am aware, unprecedented in the annals of Dominica and, indeed, of Anglo-phone Caribbean. Perhaps the nearest attempt of the kind was the bi-partisan approach that was required for the granting of political independence in 1978 which was, in any case, a formal and, in a sense, minimal response to a stipulated requirement. In the present instance nothing but good sense and timing could have impelled the Prime Minister to extend the olive branch, and nothing but patriotism and goodwill obliged the Leader of the Opposition to comply. For both Parties, moreover, it was a risk – a step in the dark that might still be costly, and therefore it was an agreement that called for an extraordinary degree of courage and a commitment that transcended the narrower claims of Party politics and self-interest. That this has happened is a clear plus for Dominica and, to that extent, it ought to be recognized and applauded, whatever the motivation, whatever the expectations and whatever the teething problems.
What the Parliamentary Political Parties, their Leadership and the rest of us should appreciate is that we have now ventured upon unknown territory and on a journey for which we were unprepared. Until "Erika" struck, relationships between the Political Parties, in and outside of Parliament, were flagrantly adversarial and highly contentious – no quarters given no holds barred. That was the political culture to which we had become inured. It was in that climate of antagonism that Political Parties hoped to survive, thrive and succeed. The ravages of "Erika" have forced upon the Parties in Parliament an 1800 turn-around overnight, and therefore the success of such a venture might require of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and their respective colleagues, a swift re-structuring of relationships in a commitment to self-discipline and openness, little short of a sudden conversion.
In the first place, the success of such an experiment demands a depth of honesty and genuineness that must quickly erase all evidence of that guile, subterfuge and craftiness commonly euphemized as diplomacy. It cannot succeed while suspicion and mistrust prevail. Therefore the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and their respective Parliamentary colleagues owe the people of Dominica an obligation to approve themselves trustworthy. If this is appears to be asking too much and is just not possible, then the experiment might as well be abandoned forthwith, lest an already fragile relationship deteriorate into deeper antipathy, acrimony and further estrangement.
An essential feature of that honesty is the enunciation of some clear definition of the nature, purpose, extent and limits of the collaboration envisaged, which can be understood, accepted and respected by all the Parties concerned. Evidently, this is not a Coalition by a long way. We do not have a Prime Minister from one Party with a Deputy Prime Minister from another. Collaboration notwithstanding, the Prime Minister appointed by His Excellency the President continues in office as the only Prime Minister; and the Parliamentary Opposition, with their constitutionally appointed Leader, remains in Opposition. That is the substantive and unalterable position, and it is within these constitutional parameters that any attempt at collaboration can be profitably pursued. However, the advantage of seeking and securing the participation of all the elected Members of Parliament in a collaborative effort rather than the continuance of an adversarial relationship is that, having been co-opted in the decision-making processes as participants, members of the Parliamentary Opposition are no longer obliged to oppose as they were wont to do when, and because, they were excluded. Having co-operated, they ought to be more disposed to concur with decisions reached of which they were a part. Correspondingly, the Prime Minister and his colleagues need not take offence or feel obliged to dismiss, reject or over-rule proposals and initiatives that come before them from the Opposition, on the pretext that such initiatives encroach on privileges and responsibilities that were exclusively theirs. On the contrary, such initiatives ought to be encouraged, even invited, so that the entire Government can co-operate in all the decision-making processes. It is by the free and open consultation at every level of decision-making, as well as the joint-implementation of the decisions reached, that the collaboration envisaged will yield the best results, even within the constitutional constraints.
One practical way in which such a collaboration might more easily develop is by frequent and regular, one-on-one meetings between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, each accompanied by a Deputy, in order that the earliest opportunity might be offered for free discussion on sensitive matters that are likely to be controversial, always recognizing that the intention is not so much agreement as an early understanding, on both sides, of the issues at stake. An extension of that sharing is an opportunity for the Leader of the Opposition and his Deputy to participate in meetings of the Cabinet, but without the right to vote. Any consensus reached by such a process of consultation, especially on matters controversial, might then be given public support by the Leader of the Opposition, so that in cases where disagreement is unavoidable, his reticence might suffice until the Parliamentary debate, and not be misconstrued as consent.
Alongside honesty, openness and trustworthiness, is also the need for humility and patience. All of us, the Prime Minister included, were caught unprepared for "Erika", nor are we any better prepared for the political innovation that is now being attempted. Mistakes are therefore likely to occur, partly because of temperament and habit, and partly inexperience. I do not know of any Political Leader who is naturally a collaborator. Collaboration is an option to which Leaders incline only when they have to. Natural collaborators seldom become Leaders and, when like Aaron they do, they make a mess because of poor leadership. We therefore have a delicate situation that calls for sympathetic understanding. We have two Political Leaders who have been called upon to collaborate, neither of whom is, by nature, a collaborator. There might therefore be hiccups from time to time, which will require of the one partner the humility to admit an unfortunate blunder or oversight, and of the other the sympathy, magnanimity and patience to understand, and yet remain focused on, and committed to, the higher objective. Unless the virtues of humility and patience inform the relationships, especially in the initial stages, the experiment is apt to founder.
No less important for success is that the culture of collaborative effort should not be confined to the Leadership and the upper echelons, but should spread outwards to the Media Houses and percolate downwards to the constituencies. For the Talk Shows, in particular, it should mean zero tolerance of discussions that are consistently negative and present a biased point of view invariably degraded by misrepresentation, innuendo and smear. There, of all places, the populace at large ought to be educated and enthused into the political culture of a higher and mature sensitivity; and therefore such discussions should, at the very least, be bi-partisan, including always representatives of both the DLP and UWP and should, even when frank and free, animated and critical, be kept at the high level of objectivity and decorum. Party combatants, however faithful, who are unable to engage in such discussions without casting aspersions should be kept away from the air-waves. In the constituencies, prioritization of projects for recovery and for further development should not be decided outside and imposed willy-nilly, but should come out of consensus reached in the constituencies at meetings of bi-partisan or multi-partisan composition, convened by the Parliamentary Representatives, but in which party loyalties are deliberately eschewed, and superseded by the felt needs of the whole community.
Last but not least, it is undesirable, even unrealistic, that this venture in inter-party collaboration should continue indefinitely, let alone become established as a permanent arrangement. With the best of intentions, such a vision is Utopian and should not be pursued. On the contrary, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition should quickly arrive at a common recognition of a reasonable time-frame for recovery, in order that this particular pattern of collaboration might be formally discontinued, and the status quo ante, of Party Politics in a divided House be honorably resumed. Otherwise it opens the door to a new Political Party that will, first of all, caricature the arrangement as undemocratic, and then raise, and capitalize on, the bogey of a "Single Party Dictatorship", leaving either the DLP, or more than likely the UWP, out in the cold. It would be most unfortunate that this should be the price for collaborating, above Party interests, in patriotic response to a national emergency. Therefore, after the roadways have been cleared, the bridges have been replaced and commuters are, once again, able to travel freely and in safety, the displaced persons have been re-settled, the utilities have been restored and the economy has begun to pick up again, the Parliament Opposition, being satisfied with their contribution to the recovery effort, should know, for their own good, that they have come to the parting of the ways. The only danger to be combated, then, might be that this natural step should be foolishly or speciously misinterpreted as a return to the futile pattern of overheated adversarial politics that obtained before August 27, 2015. On the contrary, the enduring benefit of the experiment, hopefully, should be a consigning of that legacy to political oblivion, and the dawning of a new era of statesmanship, patriotism and responsible governance so that, whatever the result of the next General Election, it will no longer offer a temptation to outshine by boasting of, or undoing, what was done, or by extolling, on the one hand, or discarding, on the other hand, what was already in progress; but the stage would have already been set for continuing, without reluctance or regret, the programmes that were already in progress, which were the work of both Parties. All in all, it should augur well for the future of Dominica when, after a fair and free Election, the Party elected for Government, and now facing with respect a tried, confident and, above all, a proven and viable Alternative, shall have replaced what was formerly a pantomime of a Self-sufficient, Overmighty, Omnicompetent but Complacent Majority looking down with smug disdain on a sulking, bitter and hostile Minority.