Government Senator Harry Husbands this week made as strong a case as ever for disbanding the Senate. It was not what he intended, and we would not expect Mr Husbands to go out there and campaign for an end to the Upper Chamber. It would require a gargantuan act of asceticism on his part.
However, if the words he expressed were a serious reflection of his conviction about this segment of the legislature, then the Senate as designed and constructed by the goodly senator is useless.
In his contribution to debate on the Appropriation Bill 2018, Mr Husbands had this message for fellow senators: “We the nominated people cannot and should not see our role as standing in the way of legislation which has been discussed and duly adopted by people who are elected.
“Simple solution for this problem . . . . The elected people are held in check by the people out there who will have their say quite shortly, and they are held in check by the law courts.
“Anybody else who aspires to hold elected people [in check], whether they are from whatever party . . . should try putting on a pair of shoes, come after March 5 [the day Parliament will dissolve] and walk around and knock on some doors.”
And to those whom he said had appointed “to themselves the authority to keep politicians in check”, Mr Husbands stated: “If you want to keep politicians in check, go and study law and become a judge or put on a pair of shoes, jeans and a t-shirt – red or yellow or orange – and go and knock on some doors and say, ‘I would like your vote.’”
It was not clear whether those who “appoint themselves the authority to keep politicians in check” included senators, but it would not be unreasonable to interpret his warning to senators as meaning that the Upper Chamber must act as a rubberstamp for Government.
If this is the case, what’s the use? Why should the taxpayers of this economically challenged country continue to fund a body whose fundamental purpose is to rubberstamp whatever comes for the elected representatives? If there are no checks and balances, why waste time and money?
We could be tempted to suggest that we do away with this body, which is seen by some as a repository for some who have failed at the polls, with the exception of those appointed by the Governor General in his/her own deliberate judgement.
The very make up of our Senate already makes it a Government rubberstamp. Of the 21 members, 12 are nominated by Government, seven are independent members appointed by the Governor General in his/her own deliberate judgement, and only two are nominated by the Opposition. Some may see this as tokenism.
Independent Senator John Watson felt this make up did not allow for any semblance of balance, and a day before Mr Husbands issued his warning, Mr Watson called for changes, suggesting instead seven independent, ten Government and four Opposition senators.
“It gives the representation of all people a better chance of getting the best. And it will give more confidence to the working of this Senate,” he said.
In Trinidad & Tobago, there are 31 senators, 16 of whom are nominated by government, six by the opposition and nine appointed at the discretion of the president. In St Lucia, there are six government, three opposition and two independent senators, while in Jamaica, the senate comprises 13 government and eight opposition members. Like us, all three have bicameral legislatures.
In Dominica, on the other hand, where there is a unicameral system, there are only nine senators – five representing government and four from the opposition.
We agree with Mr Watson that the Upper House needs some balance, but we do not think his recommendations go far enough.
Although we are a young democracy – or probably because we are such – it is critical that we have proper checks and balances in place. We cannot allow the elected representatives to simply push through any legislation they wish to, particularly when it is convenient for them to do so, without proper oversight. We saw it during debate on the amendment to the Police Act. The independent and Opposition senators were uncomfortable with some of the changes and pleaded for the measure to be delayed while the public gets a say and changes are made. Yet, Government, with its majority, pushed it through nonetheless.
If we are to have an effective Senate, it must represent the public, not the interest of political parties. It must be able to question and challenge the measures that come before it, and send Bill with which it is uncomfortable back to the Lower House for recommended improvement.
In order to achieve this, our Senate must be truly independent, which means, every member appointed by the Governor General in his/her own discretion, based on recommendations from civil society, the trade unions, the legal fraternity, the church, etc. Everyone but the political parties.
There may be popinjays, intoxicated by the myth of their own superior intelligence, or the allure of power, who will argue this is not done anywhere else so why should we do it. The question is, why can’t we?
Keeping the status quo works for the politicians, it does not necessarily work for the people.
We are aware that politics can be very much like comedy where most people think they are good at it. But wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars on a Government rubberstamp is no laughing matter.