By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
FORMER National Security Minister Tommy Turnquest yesterday called potential changes to the boundary lines a “waste of time”, taking aim at suggestions of an increase in constituencies ahead of the 2017 general election.
Mr Turnquest, the minister with responsibility for elections in the last Ingraham administration and a two-time member of the Constituencies Commission, said there was not enough statistical data to justify any changes given the low voter registration numbers.
Reflecting on the issue of gerrymandering, however, he ultimately expressed confidence in the independence of the commission’s Vice-Chair Justice Stephen Isaacs.
“When it’s time for you to go, you can do whatever nonsense you want – no chance trying to fool around with the constituency line,” Mr Turnquest said when contacted by The Tribune.
“It’s a waste of time, just have the election on the existing boundary line. People aren’t going to move from where they live now.
“Every instance where there has been this whole suggestion that lines have been changed to try and give the governing party an advantage, has caused the governing party to lose, with the exception of 1997.
“The old adage that you can change the lines but you can’t change the minds, holds true,” he added.
“Obviously we were not successful in terms of boundaries, or maybe we were and just not successful in the election because they [boundary changes] made sense because they were supported by registration numbers and census numbers,” he said.
Constituencies Commission Chair and House Speaker Dr Kendal Major confirmed to The Tribune that the Progressive Liberal Party government has made clear its intention to create additional seats. Dr Major explained that the commission was using data from the 2010 census that had been extrapolated in a 2016 report prepared by the Department of Statistics.
“The census is done every 10 years,” Dr Major told The Tribune yesterday, “but the Department of Statistics did for the parliamentary office what the number of persons who are Bahamians, who are eligible to vote (based on age) and certain groups who are eligible to vote. So we have the numbers of people in the various constituencies up to last year extrapolated as to what the numbers ought to be based on census numbers.
“It’s not an exact science but it’s helpful and it’s all we have,” Dr Major added.
However, Mr Turnquest - a commission member before the 2002 and 2012 general elections - insisted that those projections were not strong enough to justify boundary changes in the absence of a robust voter registration.
“There was a census in 2010, and we used that along with registration numbers to make our case,” Mr Turnquest said.
“I’m not sure how they can use those numbers, you can extrapolate those numbers and say there’s been a shift but without registration numbers how are you able to extrapolate those figures? That is the difficulty I have.”
Underscoring that the House Speaker was still a part of the governing party, Mr Turnquest noted yesterday that the only independent commission member is Justice Isaacs.
He said it was up to the remaining members to convince Justice Isaacs of the need for adjustments.
“Adjustments have to be based on something,” Mr Turnquest said, “the adjustments are done on the basis of one person, one vote, and taking into account the constitutional aspect of the archipelagic nature of the Bahamas where you may decide that because of the far flung islands and difficulty to get to them that there could be a case for adjustment.”
Mr Turnquest explained that the ideal was to ensure that constituency populations were same where it was reasonably practical, but that the scattered Family Islands presented some challenge.
“The Constitution of the Bahamas makes provisions for those types of circumstances,” he said. “The difficulty that I see with the low voter registration numbers is that there’s no justification to argue that there has been any population shift over the years.
“There has been a demographic shift to the southwest, people have moved out of the traditional inner-city to the suburbs. Look at the Carmichael corridor,” Mr Turnquest said, “in 1992 there was one seat. Now there are six so there’s no gerrymandering there.”
The Constitution mandates that the Constituencies Commission review the number and boundaries of constituencies in The Bahamas at least every five years and report on whether changes should be made, such as creating additional constituencies or expanding or restricting existing ones.
Notwithstanding the Commission’s recommendations, the Constitution gives the prime minister veto power over the changes once he provides justification.
Accusations of gerrymandering are par for the course during the election season as it is widely held that the decisions are made in hopes of producing favourable results for the governing party.
Historically, PLP-led administrations have favoured seat additions, while subsequent FNM administrations have reduced the number of seats.
The PLP increased the number of seats in the lower House to 43, up from 38, in 1977. The number of seats was then raised to 49 in 1987.
The FNM did not win the government until 1992, and subsequently reduced the number of seats to 40 ahead of the 1997 election. However, the party lost the 2002 term, and the PLP added just one seat for the 2007 election. The FNM won the government in 2007.
When the commission’s report was tabled in December 2011, Opposition MPs vilified the changes and accused the then-FNM government of manipulating the boundary lines for political gain. The change saw the number of seats in the House of Assembly shrink from 41 to 38.
Bain and Grants Town MP Dr Bernard Nottage, in opposition at the time, said the commission should be independent and that changes should be based on the number of people per constituency and not the number of registered voters.
Englerston MP Glenys Hanna-Martin suggested that Parliament enact a law that would allow for a legal challenge to the commission’s recommendations.
“I recommend that we commit ourselves to doing so,” Mrs Hanna-Martin said, “so that we move away from this narrow culture where politicians seek to hold on to power at all costs.”
Yesterday, Dr Major said: “(Tommy Turnquest) knows better than anybody that the government’s decision to add or subtract constituencies, it’s not merely based on numbers, it’s based on the government’s agenda.
“We don’t need to beat around the bush with that. I’m a neutral party but the government has stated its intention is to add seats and they want an odd number.”
Dr Major said the desire for an odd number of seats stemmed from the historic tie between the PLP and the United Bahamian Party in the 1967 general election. Both parties won 18 seats, but the PLP went on to become the first black-led government with the support of Labour Party MP Randol Fawkes.
A likely argument against the addition of new seats will be the issue of expenditure for MPs’ salaries.
Dr Major yesterday said that while the cost argument has not come up yet, Opposition member K Peter Turnquest has already indicated that he does not see the justification for increasing the seats.
To this, the former National Security Minister said: “The PLP government is not concerned about expense. Look at the way they govern, their formula for governing is spend as much money as they can.”
When asked for his views on the state of his own party, the FNM, which has undergone a considerable shakeup over this term, Mr Turnquest said: “Those of us who have given blood sweat and tears must make sure that the FNM wins.”