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Friday, December 06, 2013
Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online
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Should THE senate be retained or abolished?
A call for the reduction of the qualifying age for the appointment of a senator from 25 years to 18 is clearly not without precedent, although there are many countries which have fixed a higher age limit for such an office. This is an issue, however, which may be addressed by the Constitution Reform Commission and the people. It is an aphorism, however, that a person whether 18 years or over requires no training, qualification or experience to become a politician or a prime minister. What, however, would appear to be a more fundamental and overriding question for consideration is whether the Senate should be retained as a second chamber or abolished. When Caribbean territories attained their independence from the British many opted for the Westminster model of government with a Lower House elected by the people and an Upper House (Senate) with members nominated by the Government, the Opposition and the Governor General. However, since T&T became a Republic in 1976, members of the Senate have been and are being appointed by the President.
One of the common characteristics of the Senate in most Caribbean countries is that it is constituted of a preponderance of members nominated by the government, the objective of which is to ensure that the will of the elected government will not be frustrated or disabled from governing or that members will not be able to block or veto legislation of an elected Lower House.
This is clearly manifest in the Constitutions of Jamaica, Barbados and St Lucia, to name a few. The Jamaican Constitution provides for a Senate of 21 members, 13 appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Government and eight on the advice of the Leader of the Opposition. The Constitution of Barbados on the other hand provides for 21 Senators, 12 appointed on the advice of the Government, two on the advice of the Leader of the Opposition and seven by the Governor-General. The Constitution of St Lucia provides for 11 Senators, six appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister, three on the advice of the Leader of the Opposition and two by the Governor General while the Constitution of T&T provides for 31, 16 appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister, six on the advice of the Leader of the Opposition and nine by the President with a proviso that no bill which seeks to abridge or abrogate or infringe fundamental rights shall become law unless supported by three-fifths of the majority of both Houses.
When the Government of T&T appointed the Wooding Commission in 1974 to consider the Constitution and make recommendations for its revision and reform it held the view that the Senate was virtually a rubber-stamp of government’s policies and consequently would render the Senate an irrelevant body. That proposition would seem not to have been without significance since all senators appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition toe the line of their respective parties while the views of the minority independent senators are at times illusory and confusing and fraught with ambivalences. During the 2009-2010 parliamentary session the President appointed a senator who was also appointed by the Government as a member of a statutory board. Not surprisingly, however, the senator was subsequently found to have been defending the Government and the board in the Senate on allegations of corruption. In a democracy the people are sovereign and their will is exercised through their duly elected representatives. They accordingly elect representatives of their choice to govern the nation who in turn are answerable to them.
On the other hand members of the Senate are nominated and not elected and this may clearly be described as an antithesis of democracy. The distinguishing characteristics of a nominated Senate as opposed to an elected one is that appointments are generally perceived to be made on the basis of cronyism, political influence and posturing, while the appointment of persons defeated at the polls of a general election as senators and ministers and to act as prime minister is clearly a negation of democracy. It is not surprising therefore that the people of England and Canada have been contemplating the abolition of their Upper Houses and replacing them by elected members as in the United States. The more important and fundamental question at this juncture would seem to be whether there is need for an elected Senate or whether there should be a single chamber as obtains in the Parliaments of South Africa, Sweden, Singapore and Malta, to name a few.
Kenneth R Lalla
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