Hon. Wale on Solomon Islands Governance

Hon. Mathew Wale, MP for Aoke-Langalanga Constituency.

Read below Honourable Mathew Wale’s presentation during the Practice Women’s Parliament workshop held at the Paul Tovua Complex, Tuesday 12 June, 2018.

Solomon Islands is a constitutional parliamentary democracy. It is constitutional because it gives supremacy to the constitution, above which there is no other person, authority, or office. All are under the supreme authority of the constitution and must submit to it. Although the Governor General represents the Head of State, the Monarch – even the Head of State cannot act inconsistent with the constitution. Parliament, the Executive and the Judiciary are all subject to the constitution that established them.

It is a parliamentary democracy because it has representative government. Political representation is at the heart of its leadership, decision making and law making.

It is a democracy because it is based on universal suffrage, one person one vote.

The foundation principle that must always be protected and advanced in our democracy is “Government by consent of the governed”.

Although not all citizens can vote (because of age, illness, absence from country, etc.), the electorate represents the governed. The electorate (or citizenry) is the foundation of our democracy. Once every four years, their consent is sought by those wishing to occupy and direct government. The electorate is presented with options on policies by individuals and political parties. When the vote is cast, it is assumed that the collective will/consent of the electorate has been expressed. And that the party with the highest number of seats can claim a mandate from the electorate to pursue the policies presented during the election campaigns. I am aware that I risk presenting a simplistic view of our political system.

Of course, this picture is complicated by independents, weak political parties, a lack of cohesive national policies, and an ill-informed electorate (illiteracy, misinformation or deception). A further complication is the numbers game in the election of Prime Minister, an election only by MPs, which has tended not to reflect the collective consent/will of the electorate, expressed through elections. As has been our experience, MPs mostly act out of self-interest. And it is arguable whether a collective (national) will ever existed on any common set of policy goals at any election in our history.

Our founding fathers, in the constitution, have bequeathed to us separation of powers between the three arms of government – Parliament, the Executive and the Judiciary – all exercising their powers, functions and mandates under the constitution. The three are expected to be independent of each other, holding the other in respectful accountability. Parliament legislates to direct the Executive. The Executive implements such directions as it runs government on a day to day basis. It must then report back to parliament on its implementation of the directives/legislation. It is accountable to parliament for all the decisions, lack of decisions, actions and inaction it has taken. It is therefore critical to ensuring that parliament directs (in the first instance) and holds the Executive accountable (in the second instance) that members of parliament are able to and do take an active interest in parliamentary duties and work. The accountability/supervisory role of parliament is conducted in parliament meetings through question and answer sessions, debates, committee stage deliberations, and of increasing importance, through standing committees. MPs must be held accountable on the manner in which they discharge their parliamentary duties in this regard.

The RCDF has roped all MPs into becoming part of the Executive, to the extent of their responsibilities over the resources. This has the potential to undermine the independence/effectiveness of parliament.

The division of MPs in parliament into the Executive and the Opposition is an important aspect of animating Parliamentary supervision/accountability. It has often been said that in Melanesia, we make decisions by consensus and that therefore it is not contextual to our culture to have an opposition in parliament. However, in the 21st century, it is important that we recognize the vulnerabilities in consensus decision making – which is often the decision of a few that has not been subject to criticism and second guessing. Of course, parliamentary process is also inherently a consensus form of decision making, after all views have been aired and weighed on any given matter. It is very healthy to have dissenting differing views on all matters in the public domain and allow for debate on these. If we are seeking consensus on best outcomes, then we must allow for rational policy debate.

Of course, in the Westminster system we have inherited, the Executive comprises the majority of MPs in parliament. Therefore, parliament is vulnerable to being used as a rubber stamp, and its independence undermined by the Executive. The lack of a standing parliamentary calendar and the fact that the power to call parliament is vested in the Prime Minister entrench this. Although this may be undesirable, parliamentary standing orders, procedure, debate, question & answer sessions, and committee systems can effectively mitigate against this inherent weakness. It is therefore very important that parliament is effectively served to ensure that it is well informed, so it can supervise and hold the Executive accountable.

The Executive arm of government comprises the political government (MPs), and the administrative government (civil servants). Although political executive makes policy decisions, these direct the civil service that actually does the implementing. The civil service can stifle, distort, misdirect implementation of policy – and this would be a serious breach of governance. The civil service is often motivated by interests other than the implementation of government policy. Issues of emoluments, positions, structural deficiencies, corruption, contribute to the effectiveness (or otherwise) of the civil service. The civil service also is accountable to the political government, in the first instance, and parliament, in the second. The civil service, ultimately, acts as administrative trustees on behalf of the electorate (the governed) and must be held accountable for the trust placed on it.

I use the term civil service loosely. But it is important to understand that part of the trusteeship involves the effectiveness and independence of public institutions that play important roles in ensuring checks and balances on the use of public/state powers. Such institutions as the RSIPF, OAG, CBSI, Ombudsman, LCC, (ICAC) are very important in this regard. All state/government powers must be exercised with the greatest of care to always uphold the rule of law, in pursuit of a just society. The exercise of such powers must be regulated by processes/procedures that are transparent, and moderated by the principles of fairness, equity, inclusivity and trusteeship – and guard against the evils of ad hoc, and arbitrary use of powers. It is the place and role of parliament to ensure these institutions are able to and do fulfill their mandates. It does this by ensuring the institutions are adequately resourced, they regularly report on the performance of their work and that any deficiencies are remedied, including in legislation.

Of course, the third arm of government is the judiciary, which is tasked by the constitution with interpreting the law. This is an essential check on all state powers. I will not dwell on this subject, as I understand another, more learned, speaker will address it specifically. I will venture only to say that the judiciary can be undermined by ineffective capacity in the RSIPF investigative/prosecutions capacity, the DPP’s office, Public Solicitor’s office – the judicial offices. The result can be justice delayed. Further, the capacity to enforce decisions of the court is essential to inculcating respect for the rule of law. Whenever court decisions are not enforced by the Sheriff or the police – the rule of law is undermined. Again, parliament has supervisory responsibility to ensure the judicial services are adequately resourced, their independence protected and that they are discharging their mandate with impartiality, as required of them by the constitution.

Principles of good governance are based on the fundamental principle of “government by consent of the governed” which is the basis of the trusteeship bestowed by the constitution on all individuals possessing and exercising government/state powers. The following are generally accepted principles of good governance:

  1. Participation
  2. Accountability
  3. Rule of law
  4. Inclusiveness and equity
  5. Effectiveness and efficiency
  6. Responsiveness
  7. Transparency
  8. Consensus oriented

You can judge for yourselves to what extent these principles are reflected in our governance. Of course, these principles are also applicable to non-state organizations.

Of course, there is then the fourth estate – a vibrant, competent and informed media. This so-called fourth arm is essential to a vibrant democracy where freedom of expression undergirds public accountability. Irresponsible, sensational, uninformed media can retard democracy and good governance. It is often the fourth estate that holds all others accountable and bridge the gap between the governed and those governing. But I note another, more qualified, speaker addressed this subject yesterday.

Before I close, I should perhaps address these issues as they regard provincial governments. The principles remain the same, as discussed above for the national government. As we know, provincial governments work under the Provincial Government Act. A province cannot assume it has powers that are not given it under the Act. Therefore, it is the role of MPAs to seek accountability/compliance with the Act. Further, the purpose for which funds are received ought to inform accountability questions on how such funds are managed and expended by the provincial government. The provincial government/executive is given the initiative to lead. It must outline what and how it will lead. The provincial assembly is to ensure that that vision/plan/policy is consistent with the Act, it is strategic in the use of scarce resources, and that it results in best outcomes. These can be gleaned from the provincial government’s regular reporting to the assembly, audit reports, etc.

In conclusion, let me say that it is critical to governance in our system that boundaries are respected between the three arms of government. Further, in the Executive, the boundary between the political government and the administrative government is important to ensuring that implementation of policy is not hijacked by narrow partisan or personal interests.

Boundaries demarcate, as of necessity. Our efforts must be to clarify those boundaries, and encourage everyone to respect them. Boundaries may be a source of frustration in government, but they are a necessary evil to ensuring robust and responsible government. It has been said about the American system that it is built on the premise of government by frustration. Maintaining this tense relationship between arms of government is a good thing in ensuring each is able to discharge its constitutional mandate.

  • Mathew C. Wale, MP for Aoke-Langalanga Constituency