Former Indian vice president and chairman of the Indian Upper House, the Rajya Sabha, Venkaiah Naidu, said in his first speech as the Rajya Sabha chairman in August 2017:
“If the ruling party has power, Opposition must at least have its say. But at the end of the day, democracy says that Opposition must have its say and the Government must have its way because it is as per the mandate of the people.”
This is the norm for parliamentary democracies and it is no different in T&T. Last Monday, President Christine Kangaloo told parliamentarians in her address at the opening of Parliament:
“First, I hope that there can be greater collaboration across the aisle, particularly where legislative and other measures designed to help us fight crime are concerned. The urgency is obvious; the pain and the suffering are unbearable. These alone should drive parliamentarians to put aside their party rivalries, join hands across the aisle, and collaborate on how to stem crime and criminal conduct.”
This was a noble, but unrealistic call. Our system of government is based on a government and an opposition. As a consequence, there must be divisiveness in the Parliament. Responsible government implies that it is the Government that has responsibility for policy, not the Opposition.
That does not mean to say that they cannot have dialogue. The reality is that in Parliament, the Government’s majority will carry the day and the agenda and timetable for Parliament is set by the Government.
The very architecture of our Parliament, having recently been rebuilt and refurbished, continues the tradition of having a confrontational style with government and opposition desks facing each other in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, the same architecture is used with the independent benches being placed behind the Opposition. There is no roundtable, as obtains in other parliaments that uphold power sharing.
Interestingly, for the opening of Parliament last Monday, the independent senators were placed on padded seats located between the Government and the Opposition which recalls the tradition of crossbenchers in the House of Lords in the UK.
Unlike the UK, our upper house is not equipped with the level of independence to have government defeats in the way in which this happens with regularity in the House of Lords. Between the 2012-2013 session and the 2021-2022 session, there have been 454 defeats for the Government in the House of Lords. That cannot happen here.
Our senators have no security of tenure as confirmed by the revocation of the appointment of four independent senators by the President following in the tradition of former president Anthony Carmona in 2013. No reasons were given as this is a discretionary power of the President.
Reaching across the aisle in our Parliament is dangerous business for any parliamentarian without the concurrence of their party caucus. In the House of Representatives, there is the crossing-the-floor provision which can result in an MP having their seat declared vacant for not supporting their party. In the Senate, the task is much easier as the President can simply revoke appointments on either the advice of the Prime Minister (for government senators) or the Leader of the Opposition (for opposition senators).
Once the caucus agrees, there can be collaboration. The only time when it is enforced is when there is a need for special majority legislation. Even then, it is not guaranteed to produce the best results as occurred in 2006 when the PNM and the UNC collaborated to get a two-thirds majority to amend the Constitution to change the way the Police Service Commission is appointed and the way in which the Commissioner of Police and Deputy Commissioners of Police are appointed. That process has failed.
The desire for hegemonic dominance by whichever party wins a majority of seats has baked into the cake the desire to ignore the Opposition as irrelevant. That is our political culture. It will take constitutional reform to create the conditions for enforced collaboration, not an unrealistic appeal to “put aside their party rivalries, join hands across the aisle”, because, at the end of the day, it is Cabinet and not Parliament that sets the policy agenda.
Since 2015 to now, the Opposition has supported the Government on 23 pieces of legislation across the aisle. The problems are much deeper than the collaboration that has already taken place.
Prof Hamid Ghany is Professor of Constitutional Affairs and Parliamentary Studies of The University of the West Indies (UWI). He was also appointed an Honorary Professor of The UWI upon his retirement in October 2021. He continues his research and publications and also does some teaching at The UWI.