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By John Beale
The Parliamentary Reform Committee has been discussing the relevance of the Senate, and for good reason. Some members of the public think the Senate is outdated, operates like a talk shop and is merely a rubber stamp for decisions made in the House of Assembly. Others think that we should move from a bicameral (two Houses of Parliament) to a unicameral legislature.
Nevertheless, it seems that the consensus of many people, including some former senators, is that the Senate has a very important function to play in our legislation. However, we must consider some changes to make it more relevant in today’s world.
Some aspects to consider are: (1) Should senators be elected or appointed as has been the custom since 1639? (2) Should the current structure of 21 senators be maintained, with the Prime Minister appointing 12 senators, the opposition appointing two, and the President appointing seven (officially “independent”)?
Elected vs. Appointed Senators
The main reason for having senators is to have them review and reflect on proposed legislation and, wherever possible, to improve the quality of the legislation. Most people would agree that the Senate should be composed of people with specialised knowledge and experience. If we allowed senators to be elected, we would not benefit from the expertise of many highly qualified people who often have no interest in elective politics. In other words, elected senators may not possess the varied specialised knowledge and experience on a broad range of topics that are necessary for the Senate to make the best decisions.
The President’s role in choosing seven independent senators is intended to fill such outstanding gaps in professional knowledge, skills and contributions that may well be lacking among elected MPs.
The senators should be broad-based in knowledge in many different fields and should be mature and experienced. It should also be recognised that one individual may possess specialised knowledge and experience in various fields. In the final analysis, it is important that the Senate body has expertise in topics covering areas such as religion, education/academia, medicine, engineering, culture, language, labour, business, interest groups such as people with disabilities, youth and elderly and the LGBTQ. Women should also be represented, with perhaps a minimum of seven female senators.
It is expected that the Government and the opposition would also recognise the importance of their appointees being knowledgeable and experienced and that they are not appointed because of loyalty to the respective parties, or nepotism and cronyism.
Composition of Senate appointments
While it is recognised that a government must govern and that certainty, order and sustainability are important, the present system of the government having 12 senators or 57 per cent of the voting rights is too high and, consequently, it results in the public’s perception that the Senate is a rubber stamp body. It may also lead to legislation proposals from the House of Assembly that have not been thoroughly prepared, because it is understood that the bill can be passed in the Senate as the Government controls 57 per cent of the vote.
In order to improve the situation, it would be better to decrease the number of government-appointed senators from 12 to 10 and to increase the President’s “independent” appointees from 7 to 9. This would result in the government having 48 per cent of the vote and the two opposition senators and nine independent senators having a combined 52 per cent. This new structure should also reduce the errors that occur in the legislation proposals and create a more disciplined approach that ensures better legislative drafting.
Moreover, if the Government knows that its proposal is not “automatically” approved in the Senate, it would hopefully encourage the House of Assembly to produce better legislation. Hence, in order for the Government to pass a bill, it would need to convince one senator from the opposition or independent group of senators to support the proposed bill. Surely, if a bill has merit, it should be easy for the Government to get the support of at least one senator from the other 11 senators. If not, one assumes that the bill in fact should not be approved in its presented state.
Finally, it should be noted that the current stipend a senator receives is $1 200 per month and this needs to be increased. While a senator only goes to the Senate once a week, it takes many hours of preparation and research in order to participate fully in the discussions and decision making.
John Beale is a former Ambassador to the US and the OAS, appointed by the DLP and a former Honorary Consul to Brazil, appointed by the BLP.