Recently, the Opposition Leader, Mia Mottley, floated the idea of increasing the number of members of the House of Assembly, and was widely denounced. However, few seem to recognize that she was trying to find a solution to the paradoxical situation in Barbados where a numerically weak Government can be more powerful than one with a larger parliamentary majority.
We like to indulge in the fantasy that we follow the Westminster system of government. However, anything beyond a cursory examination reveals that we practice a gross perversion of that system. The integrity of the Westminster system is not solely based on the formal structure but also on the conventions followed by its members. In Barbados, one of the many perversions is the lack of accountability and the failure to accept responsibility by our political officials.
Ministers don’t resign in the face of scandal or incompetence, either personal or within their portfolios. Likewise, the Speaker of the House of Assembly, despite having a court judgment against him regarding the handling of a client’s funds, still presides in the Lower House as if it is business as usual. Certainly, the Speaker of the House of Commons would have resigned immediately in the face of such a scandal even if he was guilty of nothing more than poor management of client relationships.
Another example of our perverted system is the use of parliamentary manoeuvring to constrain the Public Accounts Committee as an effective tool to hold the Government accountable. In a properly functioning parliament, Opposition parties use the PAC to telling effect. Currently, the effectiveness of any parliamentary Opposition is hobbled because every Government member in the House is either a member of Cabinet or one of the presiding officers of parliament. Because of their mutual interests, they close ranks and “circle the wagons” in all circumstances.
This is the inevitable result of having no backbench on the Government’s side to balance power of the Executive. Furthermore, the Prime Minister also appoints an absolute majority of Senators (twelve out of twenty-one). The result is that the Senate will only ever be able to rubber stamp government policies and, as such, will never function like the House of Lords in Westminster which provides a check on the British government’s power.
In addition, in Britain there is public accountability via Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, BBC shows like Question Time, and a petitions system which trigger debates in the House of Commons. Currently, none of this exists in Barbados. Is there any wonder that our economy, our polity and our society seem to be spiralling slowly but inexorably toward the abyss?
We watch helplessly as our fate unfolds before our eyes, but as in a nightmare, we feel powerless to do anything about it. It is worrisome that similarly close elections resulting in the same dysfunction in Government and parliament can be expected in the foreseeable future. I cannot imagine Barbados continuing in this comatose state, dancing hypnotically with a destiny of failure.
This is the malady Ms Mottley was trying to address with her suggestion to increase the number of seats in the House of Assembly. I do understand the negative reaction to her suggestion. After all, given the state of the economy, where will the money come from to pay for more MPs? And there is also the reflexive rejoinder of “Drain the Swamp” by well-meaning critics; but is that populist meme an appropriate answer to the question raised?
There is, however, another way to address Ms Mottley’s concerns. We could change the composition of the Senate and the appointment process in a way that would better reflect the democratic will of the Barbadian people. My thought is that the relative number of Senators should be allocated based on the share of the vote obtained by each party in the immediately preceding General Election. Therefore, if a party gets 40% of the popular vote, its leader gets to appoint 40% of the political appointees to the Senate.
This change would transform the Senate from a mere rubber stamp for Government policies to a more dynamic institution and lead to more diverse representation in that Chamber by giving a voice and status to more than the two main political parties and selected special interests. We should also consider reducing the number of the Governor General’s appointees from seven to five and increasing the political party appointees from fourteen to twenty, for a net increase of four.
Therefore, the proposed structure would be a Senate of twenty-five members. One-fifth would be appointed by the Governor General to represent special interests while the remaining twenty would be appointed by the political parties that contested the immediately preceding election. In this system, roughly 5% of the national vote would translate to one Senate seat.
This means that, for the first time, marginal or new political parties could have a parliamentary voice, provided they can achieve sufficient traction with the electorate. As a country, we can only benefit from a more diverse and inclusive parliament.
The increase in the number of Senators in a more dynamic and representative body can be justified given the clear benefits to our democracy. Furthermore, the increase could be paid for by a 10% reduction in the salaries of all parliamentarians. Therefore, we would be doing more with the same amount of money so as not to increase the financial burden on the Treasury in these difficult times.
Obviously, the day to day operations of the Government cannot be held hostage as happens in the United States when Congress fails to act and “shuts down the government”. Likewise, national security cannot be compromised. Thus, the newly composed Senate should only be able to reject money bills (budgetary appropriations and supplementals) and national security bills just once.
If the Lower House passes the same bill again, it can then go directly to the Governor General for assent. All other bills should be passed in the Senate in the usual manner before they become law. Importantly, before any of this happens, what constitutes a national security issue must be very clearly and carefully defined to minimize abuse by the Government.
The Senate should also be able to appoint standing and select committees to further its deliberative work. One standing committee should be a Public Accounts Committee, out of the direct reach of the Executive. Another, should be a Public Ethics Committee to set standards of ethical conduct for members of parliament and the most senior public officers, and to investigate and report on suspected violations of those standards.
I offer this contribution to the public debate about our system of governance and hope that other people will add their voices so that as citizens we can help to reshape our destiny.