Bicameralism for what?
Part 4 (a)
In modern democracies, the manifest function of second chambers, of which there is a variety, is ordinarily to review the decisions of directly elected representatives. The dilemma is that such second chambers must be neither too obstructive nor submissive.
A chamber directly elected, such as the US Senate since 1913, or based, alternatively, on the principle of corporate self-selection, by dint of office or group membership, is a second chamber, if at all, in name only. So too, at the subdued end of the legislative see-saw, is a second chamber, whose membership is nominated to reflect the political composition of the elected chamber.
As argued in Part 3 (b) (October 14), the powerful chamber proposed by Dr Williams in 1955 and our weak Senate from 1961, are second chambers in name only. Neither was modelled on Westminster, where, precisely because of its arcane, anti-democratic but autonomous membership, the House of Lords has been constrained from being too obstructive, without being unduly submissive, to survive..
If not Westminster here, what then? Of course, a second chamber, the State Council, nominated by the Governor, had already been introduced on the back of the 1951 Waddington Commission, in British Guiana in 1953, when, however, its constitution was suspended to check Dr Jagan’s progress. Also, for the imminent West Indian federation, a Senate, to be nominated by its Governor-General on the territorial principle, was planned.
With impeccable logic typically, Dr Williams cited these developments in support of his bicameral proposals in 1955. And when publicly criticised, he defended them, plausibly, as necessary to bring Trinbago’s unicameral legislature in line with the impending bicameral federal legislature.
Even so, his powerful 1955 chamber and the weak Senate from 1961 were distinctive. They suggest that, at the respective times, his constitutional preoccupations were elsewhere for sound pragmatic reasons.
His grasp of history, particularly in the colonies, was by any measure phenomenal. And so the similarity between the chamber he proposed in 1955 and the Maltese Senate from 1921, based primarily on the principle of corporate self-selection, seems too striking to be purely coincidental.
This second chamber had turned out, in fact, to be a real headache for the government of Malta, notwithstanding mediation attempts by the Colonial Office. Thus, following the hiatus occasioned by World War II, it was pointedly not reinstated.
As its replacement, a very different chamber, based largely on the principle of party selection, was proposed and as swiftly rejected scathingly as “a meaningless and valueless appendix”. This verdict was endorsed in 1952 in New Zealand, where a similar Senate was proposed and dismissed derisively as “a laughable impotence”.
It seems inconceivable that Dr Williams, who would be accused by his legislative opponents of trawling the whole world for constitutions, could have been unfamiliar with these developments, when his formidable second chamber, also based largely on the principle of corporate self-selection, was advocated in 1955 and when the docile Senate, based on the principle of party selection, was being finalised for introduction in 1961..
Political institutions, which are still-born or cast aside, can be as revealing about their political and societal contexts, as those which survive and thrive The second chamber proposed in 1955, though never realised, and the Senate actually established in 1961 were seemingly designed to score back-to-back goals, in a critical anti-colonial contest.
In short, the chamber proposed in 1955, a mirror image of the society, then certainly, was intended to allay the apprehensions of its major stakeholders, as regards Dr Williams and the PNM. Evidently, the hope was that this would assist the smooth emergence of responsible government locally, at long last.
Given, however, the tortuous way in which this was achieved following the 1956 elections and the possible threat to its survival, the weak Senate, from 1961, was preferred to guard against party indiscipline, fragmentation and collapse, for which the society had long been notorious. Thus, the Senate became an important institution through which patronage, primarily, could be dispensed to ensure the survival of responsible government and keep the anti-colonial drive on course.
In the process, it provided uncontested parliamentary access and training for those wary of the colony’s historically disreputable electoral arena with, in any case, a relatively small single chamber legislature. As it transpired, the Senate would be there conveniently, moreover, to accommodate legislators left stranded by the collapse of the federal institutions in 1962 and, to boot, trade unionists, though deemed unwelcome in 1955...
Thus, though dismissed in Malta and New Zealand as a joke, the Senate has certainly been no joke here. Without it, responsible government and the anti-colonial enterprise might well have been jeopardised. Dr Williams, an extraordinary political architect, drafted the second chamber needed to get us going in 1955, but built the Senate necessary to take us safely to the anti-colonial shore, from 1961.
Undoubtedly, the formidable chamber proposed in 1955 was precisely the kind to be avoided by our very first fledgling responsible government from 1956. On the other hand, notwithstanding, or indeed because of, its inherent weakness, the Senate would survive from 1961, undeterred by changes from 1976, to serve its latent but important functions, not only for PNM administrations, but unquestionably for all other governments and opposition leaders, merrily since.
A time-out to reflect on the series,
thus far, will be taken in Part 4(b).
* Rawle Boland is a barrister
and political scientist
— This is the seventh in a ten-article series that appears in the Express on Mondays