By Mike Ozekhome
STRANGE bedfellows as an idiom was probably invented by legendary William Shakespeare in his epic, “The Tempest” (2-2): “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows”. Democracy is not only antithetical to, but constitutes a strange bedfellow with dictatorship. Dictatorship, as we have given in part 8, is nothing but despotism, autocracy and absolute authority in any sphere of life. It simply means unlimited rule by one person or a group. It is another form of totalitarianism, monocracy, dystopia or anarchy. Today, we continue our seminar discourse of dictatorship.
RESPONSIBILITY TO THE ELECTORATE IN A DICTATORSHIP
First of all, the responsibility to the electorate in a dictatorship is crude and unsatisfactory. Three, four or five years is a long time to allow any person or group of people some untrammelled power, where its ultimate accountability depends on the issues which can be brought to the fore at election time. The government in a dictatorship can often manipulate the current issues as well as being in a position to choose the date for an election. Public opinion polls have a crucial influence on the choice of the date for an election in a parliamentary system of government, despite prime ministers frequently saying that the only poll that matters is held on election day. Parliaments usually last their full term only if the polls are adverse. The power of a prime minister to call an early election when public opinion is, perhaps temporarily, in his favour is a very great political advantage, and a quite unjustifiable one.
ANSWERABILITY TO PARLIAMENT
The second objection to an elective dictatorship is that it is also most defective in its answerability to parliament. A government which controls the parliament can always suppress information or inquiries which are to its disadvantage, sometimes by refusing to supply information sometimes by using party numbers to head off, or interminably delay threatening inquiries; and sometimes by throttling the parliamentary budget so that resources are simply not available for a proper inquiry.
Many people are appalled at the scandalous revelations which are periodically turned up by American congressional inquiries. What they overlook is that equally scandalous events may be happening in their own societies, but are usually covered up by their supine parliaments. Some outrageous financial deals have been done by governments in some of our twenty parliaments, and kept secret for years. There have been numerous cases of governments being able to suppress unfavourable stories until elections have been called and won, elections which would almost certainly have been lost if all the proper information had been available to the voters.
The evasive devices are many: irrelevant answers at question time; excessive delays-sometimes years-in answering questions from MPs requiring written replies; orders to public servants not to provide information to parliamentary committees by claiming Crown privilege, or by asserting that a policy issue is involved; and the failure of ministers to give proper information to parliamentary committees investigating aspects of their responsibilities, and sometimes even failing to appear before the committees at all.
This conflict between Crown privilege (or ‘public interest immunity’, as it is sometimes euphemistically called) and parliamentary privilege is difficult to resolve. The responsibility of the government to the parliament would suggest that it should be parliament, not the government, which should decide whether questions should be answered or documents produced, in camera if necessary. On the other hand, parliament is a party political body, and many committees are notoriously leaky. In practice, the government simply refuses to produce documents or permit the giving of evidence which it claims would be prejudicial to the public interest, and parliament has yielded.
THE COURTS INTERVENE
The courts have taken a firmer line. It now seems to be well established that a minister’s certificate claiming Crown privilege will not be accepted as conclusive in all cases, and the courts will decide the competing claims of public interest. In the UK, the courts do accept that there is a class of documents such as Cabinet minutes which remain privileged; but Australian courts have held that no class of document is entitled to absolute immunity.
The relations between the government and the parliament are so highly politicized that an appeal to the courts to resolve a question of Crown privilege would not be appropriate. Yet, it is difficult to justify the present situation, where the government decides what is in the public interest, and not infrequently seems to confuse its own political interest with that of the public. Of the options available, the best would seem to have the Head of state decide, in the event of a dispute between the government and the parliament, where the balance of public interest lay. But, governments would not like such a solution at all.
The third danger in an elective dictatorship is the power of the government to make appointments to the courts, to the senior ranks of the bureaucracy and to management positions in government business enterprises and other government-controlled organizations. The vast expansion of government activities in modern times permits government patronage on a scale which would have shocked even such a celebrated user of patronage as King Charles II. Some appointments are made to reward loyal party persons for their services; others so as to have a political supporter in a key policy post. Many appointments, of course, are made on merit, but the possibility of the abuse of this patronage power is real.
The only parliament to take any action to supervise such appointments is that of Canada, though not yet very effectively. The potential for corruption is considerable, and one very troubling aspect of government corruption is the way it often has implicit business support, particularly in the early stages. Queensland under the National Party in the 1980s is a good case study. Many businessmen rather liked having to bribe only one person-a corrupt minister or senior bureaucrat-and thereby avoid complicated, expensive and time-consuming tendering processes through many people.
Further, judicious bribes can override planning and environmental objections, which can indeed be tedious and frustrating if carried to extremes. Some businessmen prefer a corrupt government to an incompetent one. A bribe may not necessarily be for the personal benefit of a corrupt minister. It may take the form of a donation to party funds. In Queensland in the 1980s it was generally accepted that one or the other was necessary before a major contract could be made with the government. Ingenious methods of transferring funds were developed, such as deliberately defaming a minister and then making a large out of court settlement (which was tax free), or purchasing the mineral rights on a minister’s private property, doing nothing about them, and, after a judicious pause, forfeiting the rights. What businessmen giving such bribes do not realise, or do not care about, is that an incompetent government can be changed, but once there is corrupt public administration it is extraordinarily difficult to cleanse it.
A vigilant, inquiring and effective parliament is essential if such corruption is to be nipped in the bud, but such a parliament cannot co-exist with an elective dictatorship. In the case of Queensland, the lower house was ruthlessly controlled by the government, and there was no upper house.
No parliament has established any watching brief over judicial appointments, which are entirely in the hands of the government, despite the fact that the independence of the judiciary is a crucial constitutional concept. In Canada and Australia, where the courts interpret the constitution, there is an ever present danger that the courts will become another prize for the political parties to seize.
FOREIGN POLICY AND DEFENCE
The fourth objection to an elective dictatorship is the inability of the parliament to assert proper control over the government’s defence and foreign policy activities. A government can move the armed forces into dangerous positions and can declare war without consulting parliament. It can sign and ratify treaties which make fundamental changes to the legal, economic and social systems of the country, again without any consultation with parliament. Examples of the use of such powers are the granting to citizens of the right of appeal to international human rights organisations, which makes major changes to the effective power of parliament and the courts. Similarly the conclusion of trade agreements may radically affect the economy. In Australia the government can effectively change the Constitution by concluding an appropriate international treaty. Except for some controls in Canada on the use of the defence power, the four national parliaments have done nothing to control the enormous powers thus left with the government.
CONTROL OVER THE LEGISLATIVE PROCESS
The final objection to an elective dictatorship is that it gives the government control over the legislative process. Modern governments are far too prone to see new laws as the solution to administrative problems, when they would often be better advised to see that existing laws were administered fairly and efficiently. If the government controls the legislature, the bills wanted by the government party and the bureaucracy will be bulldozed through the parliament, any significant amendments being fiercely and effectively resisted by the government party. The government can also avoid public scrutiny in the parliament by leaving not only administrative details but substantial policy matters to be completed by the government under powers delegated by the principal act.
If the government controls the legislature it becomes a cipher. The possibility of substantial input into a bill by expert witnesses is normally frustrated by a government if it has power to do so. Governments do not like committee hearings on their bills, for the members of a committee, studying a particular problem and hearing informed evidence on it in public, tend to develop a common bond which undermines rigid party discipline. Yet public examination of a bill frequently results in a better solution and reveals defects and unintended consequences.
All in all, dictatorship is antithetical to democracy. (To be continued).
THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK
“The best weapon of a dictatorship is secrecy, but the best weapon of a democracy should be the weapon of openness”. (Neils Bohr).
Fellow Nigerians, synergise with me every week, to put our heads together on how to retool Nigeria. Right here on “The Nigerian Project”, by Chief Mike A. A. Ozekhome, SAN, OFR, FCIArb, LL.M, Ph.D, LL.D.
Nov 2, 2020 @ 14:42 GMT