We need a Senate!

Democracy does not mean a dictatorship of the majority”- His Excellency Errol Walton Barrow.

Four people are adrift at sea in a lifeboat.  They have run out of food and are on the brink of starvation.  Three of them vote to eat the fourth. That is ‘dictatorship of the majority’.  It is not democracy.  In a democracy, the majority gets to decide on all things except those that completely violate the core principles of their society. When that happens, it undermines the principles of democracy. Checks and balances are therefore needed.” – Anon

In Barbados, the Senate is the “Upper House” of a bicameral legislature, the Parliament of Barbados. Both the Senate and the House of Assembly or Lower House constitutionally share most of the same powers, however the Lower House is dominant. The Senate is limited in the amendments it can make to legislation passed by the House of Assembly and the latter can authorize legislation that is not approved by the Senate. The Governor General appoints 12 Senators (a majority) on the advice of the Prime Minister and two on the advice of the Leader of the Opposition. The remaining seven Senators are nominated by the Governor General at his/her discretion to represent various religious, social, economic, or other interests in Barbados.

The purpose of our Senate is to create and review legislation originating in the House of Assembly.  However, since our Senate has not created any legislation in a long while, its main purpose is really to provide a “sober second thought” to legislation originating in the “Lower House” while being dedicated to the “common good”. Our records show that as much as 50 per cent of the legislation originating in the “Lower House” has errors of omission or commission.

However, our Senate is thought by many to be too politicized, doing little more than replicating and regurgitating the hot air from the Lower House. This is all too common an occurrence across the world with the result that many countries have abolished their senates. Should we do the same?

The opinion has also been expressed that “the notion of the independent senator – who is not tied to any particular political party and who does not face the electorate – in a chamber which should represent the public, is also absurd”. Furthermore, “the idea of retention of seats in the Senate for special interests smacks of the highest level of snobbery”.  It is this sort of thinking that smacks of the highest level of reverse snobbery because the “public majority” is already being represented in the dominant “Lower House” that does not need the Senate.

The key issue here is that our politics is based on elected representatives of people located within physical boundaries i.e. physical constituencies. However our society consists of many constituencies other than the physical ones e.g. the Private Sector (that is the main driver of our economy), trade unions, and over 400 civil society and other community based organisations  – including those for doctors, engineers, teachers, nurses, police officers, journalists, religion, sports people et al. all of whom have special interests that are not now specifically represented in our political set up.  For that matter each and every individual in our society has special interests that vary from individual to individual.  That is why our “Social Partnership” is crucially important as a place for representing these special interests and this partnership needs a forum.

Rather than abolishing our Senate can we not simply modify it by reducing its unnecessary political partisanship and making it the institution and forum of our Social Partnership?  In doing so, we should use the opportunity to involve a wider participation and representation from our substantial civil society and other community based organisations. Such changes could be made within the existing framework of our constitution!

Source: (Peter Webster is a retired portfolio manager of the Caribbean Development Bank and a former senior agricultural officer in the Ministry of Agriculture.)

4 Responses to We need a Senate!

  1. Jeff Evanson January 12, 2018 at 4:53 pm

    I like this thought pattern. I expressed a similar view re the Social Partnership only recently

    Reply
  2. David Brathwaite January 12, 2018 at 7:14 pm

    How would this proposal work in practice? Who would appoint the members to the Senate? And is the social partnership, by definition, not a grouping of special interests anyway?

    The obvious dysfunction of the Senate reflects a larger problem with our system of government. Our Lower House is so small that all the members on the government’s side are either in Cabinet or are Officers of parliament. There is no backbench to act as an internal counterbalance to executive, as is the case in the UK. Furthermore, the structure of the Senate exacerbates the situation.

    The Prime Minister gets to appoint 12 members, the GG 7 and the Opposition Leader appoints 2. Therefore, the power of the government is intensified/concentrated.

    The lack of a back bench and the skewed structure of the Senate gives the government virtually unlimited power to execute its agenda without reference anyone. I firmly believe that the arrogance and incompetence of the current government stems directly from this lack of accountability and unchecked power.

    In my opinion, a better approach would be to structure the Senate to offset or dilute the power of the executive by giving greater effect to the will of the people. By this I mean that the seats in the Senate should be distributed in proportion to the popular vote in the immediate preceding election. This would strengthen the opposition and potentially give third parties a voice in the Upper House provided they achieve a predetermined threshold (say 5% of the popular vote). The GG could still appoint members of the social partnership, but the key difference is that the government would no longer have a rubber stamp for whatever it chooses to do.

    Reply
  3. Jus me January 13, 2018 at 7:51 am

    Yeah an who decides de
    “Core Principals”
    Democracy is as Democracy does!
    Like it or not.

    You could equally argue is it more likely 100,000 people right or just one person right.
    Mr Barrow sounds very akin tuh we own current idiot,
    Mr Frumble Fu**ups.

    Reply
  4. Andrew Simpson January 15, 2018 at 9:20 pm

    Is the public majority really being represented in the lower house? Have the senate represent the various civic sectoral concerns and abandon the lower house would be a better idea.

    Reply

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