The raison d’être of any third party even before our independence arrangements is to secure a place not only in the national dialogue but in parliamentary deliberations. It is their defining political objective. Otherwise they are reduced to the margins, hither thither from pillar to post, wandering like Ibn Batuta. Hugh Wooding to his credit and wisdom, although a classical lawyer in every sense, recognised the imperative to tap into this vein. Implicit in his report was his real sense of inclusivity. It was made of the stuff which binds civilisations. His commission recommended proportional representation.
The mainstreamers were jolted into action. In the 1976 constitutional debate the then prime minister, also classically trained, placed the issue of proportional representation in his cross-hairs and took it down. In his marathon parliamentary contribution he chided the Wooding Commission, and declared it was a dagger aimed at the heart of his party. An honest declaration, even if audacious but founded on self-preservation. We might have once again lost a chance to counter that ghost.
The Constitution (Amendment) Bill is all but passed, subject to the House, and unless His Excellency goes into counselling warning and advisory mode the run-off system will hold good subject to a judicial challenge. The run-off system, more so inspired by some of the Independent Senators, is antithetical to proportional representation. It is its arch nemesis. At its core, the principle is if you cannot get what you wish, then you are to choose what other people wish for you. If you choose not to participate in the second run, then it is time up.
Proportional representation on the other hand is based on representation by choice and proportion. A group, which can coalesce a sufficiently large segment of the electorate, may have the privilege of being subject to the Speaker’s mace. It is a proportionate response to diversity. In effect, it brings into the legislative organ of government substantial sections of the national community whose voices are as worthy as any other self-serving part.
A run-off system achieves just the opposite. Rather than facilitate electoral participation it seeks to channel it into choices predetermined by the two ethnic poles. On the second round it urges participants to choose between or, now according to the Independents, amongst contestants preferred by others. That is an option far reaching in its implications, also which is open to us. But it cannot be a variant of proportional representation and we must not advance it as such.
The contribution of every section of the national community makes for better parliamentary decisions, which are more consensual and a fortiori more readily acceptable. It is, if anything, a compelling argument.
There is nothing in our history so far to suggest that the run-off is superior to first-past-the-post or proportional representation. No proper study has been done, or considered. There is nothing to suggest that third parties have so interfered with good representative government that there must be legislative intervention which might curb them.
These new electoral arrangements will have the effect of prolonging elections. A nation does not live for elections or to wage war for that matter. It endures for its people. An election period is intended, like a war, to make a decision and to decide on an outcome which, the sooner completed the better. It is a necessary aberration for representative government.
During an election the Parliament is dissolved and the executive holds the centre. The compelling principle in constitutional instruments is to hasten the formation of a government and the convening of Parliament post-elections. Our history is not so good on that count.
The essence of a smooth transition is a regulated electoral process is legal certainty commencing with a writ of elections and ending with the formation of a government. We are justly proud of the 1986 transition. The run-off system, more so with the amendments, might just introduce a problem where none existed before. Flush with partisanship, the suffrage might just potentially reduce its participation. Naipaul’s Elvira might not have seen anything like it.
In the end it is now left for our third parties to reflect on events of the night before. Their leadership is free to commit hari kiri in the market place. That is their prerogative. The mainstreamers hold no brief for them. Quite simply it is not in their interest. They have made their Procrustean bed of nails and must lie on it. Stasis is the word which comes to mind. Unless they can locate Luke Skywalker they may just have to jump from the Tarpeian rock.