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SPEAK Now! And Forever Lose Your Seat?!

By Dyon A. Elliott


I have often said that issues in Belize tend to be cyclical. As a society, we revisit thematic areas of policy, and the Constitutional matter of “Crossing the Floor” (CTF) is not an exception. Recent news events emanating from within the ranks of the present Opposition have brought CTF to the forefront this week, and it reminded me of something that I had written approximately three years ago. Therefore, instead of penning a completely new Res Publica360 entry, I found value in repurposing that previous piece with just a few modifications.


The Matter of Crossing the Floor


Whenever a sitting politician openly criticizes his or her own party, it is natural to question the role played by Section 59(2)(e) of the Constitution that precludes "crossing the floor”.


Of course, some may ask: “What is ‘crossing the floor’ (CTF)? Simply put, it is defined as an "action in Westminster-style parliaments where a Government or Opposition member of parliament refuses to vote with his or her own party in a particular division and crosses the floor of the parliamentary chamber to vote with the opposing side."


Our Parliamentarians—supposedly the beacons of Democracy and Democratic Rights—are constitutionally barred from exercising their constitutionally bestowed (section 12) democratic right of Freedom of Expression under those CTF provisions.


Instead, Area Representatives are expected to vote in line with the party and not in line with their own views or even necessarily with those views of their constituents. It is loyalty to the Party or you're effectively fired from the job that voters gave you.


United Kingdom and India


Now, before someone jumps up and emphatically yells, "BUT IT HAS TO BE THIS WAY!!" I would like to point you to the United Kingdom—you know, the grandfather of the Westminster system. Have you noticed that in the heights of the BREXIT fiasco, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's own fellow party members were able to vote against his motions and yet kept their seats in Parliament?


Back then, we saw articles coming out of the UK with headlines such as "On Brexit, 21 British MPs voted against their government. Could this happen in India?"


Now, as it pertains to the question about India, the short answer to the headline's question is "No". In India, their version of CTF is quite explicit:


"A member of a House belonging to any political party shall be disqualified for being a member of the House ... (b) if he votes or abstains from voting in such House contrary to any direction issued by the political party to which he belongs or by any person or authority authorized by it in this behalf, without obtaining, in either case, the prior permission of such political party, person or authority and such voting or abstention has not been condoned by such political party, person or authority within fifteen days from the date of such voting or abstention."


What's the Point of Debates, then?


In their paper "ANTI-DEFECTION LAW: A DEATH KNELL FOR PARLIAMENTARY DISSENT?" Kartik Khanna and Dhvani Shah (2012) had proposed the “watering down” of India’s anti-defection laws and based said recommendations on two grounds:


(a) "First, the right to vote for or against party lines is a genuine exercise of free speech in Parliament... We, therefore, conclude that the aforementioned provision ... mistakes a legitimate avenue of dissent as an act constituting defection. By giving every member the opportunity of actually forming an opinion, parliamentary debate can be fostered. This would shift the focus of political parties from merely giving directions to convincing members of the merits of a particular vote;"


(b) "Second ... anti-defection law is not the optimal means to check bribery in voting in Parliament."


Another author, writing on the same issue, asked:


"If votes are not allowed to be altered by arguments and speeches, what is the use of the forum of Parliament? A Parliamentary form of Government can be effective only if individual legislators have a significant role as lawmakers and if they can be held accountable for their actions/ non-actions by their electorate.


"But under the present scenario, only the leaders of a political party (Party Bosses) play the significant role and the role of an individual Legislator is diminished to just a person who has to follow orders from the party bosses."


That's a valid point, don't you think?


Wider Lessons: Eradicating ‘Company Man’ Syndrome

That being said, the wider lessons for us, the citizens, would be to consider whether or not the Crossing The Floor provision serves our interests or that of the political party.


It does us absolutely no good to NOMINALLY have 31 Area Representatives, who, IN FACT, represent ONLY TWO (2) constituencies: the Parties represented in Parliament.


One approach to fixing this, as proposed by Kartik Khanna and Dhvani Shah (2012), is to limit the reach of anti-defection laws to only certain types of motions. For example, it could be limited to the likes of "No-Confidence" motions. Kartik Khanna and Dhvani Shah (2012) also propose "Money Bills", but that, in my view, is a bit too broad and itself need to be narrowed.


Point is this: We need to start looking at fixing the system, otherwise we'll possibly have another 12 years of Parliamentarians with good ideas that are superior to that of the Party Line, but can never exercise their right to freedom of expression for fear of being classified as a defector.

Lastly, it is worth stating that among "new democracies", Belize is part of the mere 13% that still have laws against Crossing the Floor.


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