The arrival of the Senate
As noted in Part 3(a) (Express, October 7), the members of the second chamber canvassed by Dr Williams in 1955 were to be (a) six self-selecting representatives of key economic interests; (b) the leaders, automatically, of the Catholic, Anglican, Hindu and Muslim faiths and a nominee from other congregations; (c) the Chief Justice and the two surviving colonial officers in the single-chamber Legislative Council; and (d) two distinguished persons on government’s advice.
What could have prompted the introduction of the Senate, a very different second chamber, in 1961? In 1956, when the PNM became our fledgling responsible government, progress was accelerating towards a West Indian federation, within which Trinidad and Tobago’s aim was full internal self-government. Its separate independence was inconceivable, then.
The first federal elections of March 1958 were anticipated, therefore, as a possible barometer of the electoral future, nationally. Of the 10 federal seats in T&T, PNM candidates, under the Manley/Adams WIFLP banner, won four, while the Jamaican Bustamante’s DLP, led here by his deputy, Ashford Sinanan, (Amory’s uncle) won six, the result, partly, of early disaffection or apathy in the PNM’s ranks and the society’s dotish racial disposition. But the votes for each party formation were split evenly.
It was against this fluid background that official deliberations began in November 1958 for constitution reform. By 1959, the proposal for a Senate, with a markedly different membership to the 1955 proposal, had emerged and the ensuing negotiations for its introduction were led in London by Dr Williams’ deputy, Dr Solomon, the anti-second chamber activist, ironically, before 1955.
They were abruptly broken off, however, on the orders of Dr Williams, in the face of objections by the Colonial Office, but were eventually resumed in Trinidad in 1960. It was in this context that Dr Williams described his triumphant encounter with the Colonial Secretary as the mountain coming to Mahomet. As a result, the US evacuation of Chaguaramas and the introduction of the Senate, to follow the 1961 elections, were settled.
Unlike the second chamber proposed in 1955, the Senate is currently comprised of 16 government nominees, 6 opposition nominees and 9 nominees, the independents, for whose appointment the President became responsible from 1976, courtesy of Dr Williams.
On the initial independents, however, it is worth recalling his observations to a British Guiana (Guyana) audience in 1963, regarding Jeffrey Stollmeyer. Pointing out wryly that Stollmeyer was said to be in the Senate to represent agriculture, he quipped that whenever he got into difficulties with the government, he could always say he was there to represent cricket! At its outset, at least, the membership of the Senate was largely based on the principle of party selection.
At the most fleeting glance, it cannot be seriously maintained that the second chamber, as proposed in 1955, and even less so, as established in 1961, was based on Westminster’s second chamber, other than in name. This remains so even by comparison with the various proposals for the reform of the House of Lords, before 1955, 1961, or since.
Based largely on the principle of corporate self-selection, the chamber canvassed in 1955 would have been even more formidable than the House of Lords, certainly since 1911 and 1949, and most, if not all, second chambers elsewhere. On the other hand, unlike those of Senators, the seats of the Lords, acquired, albeit controversially, on the principle of status, do not dictate how they vote and are not vacated at elections.
Further, the working peers may lose their privileged status and, as a result, their seats. But the procedure whereby Senators may be thrown out between elections, at the behest of their sponsors, is unknown at Westminster.
Moreover, the members of the 1955 second chamber were to receive an honorarium and not a salary. In fact, salaries were paid to Senators from 1961. Crucially, their partial exclusion, unexpectedly, from a salary review in 1969 provoked a rare rebellion, with government senators going absent without leave.
In due course, of course, their minds were concentrated by the threat of extinction posed in the report of the Wooding Commission in 1974. This arresting development was, paradoxically, as inevitable as its official rejection eventually, given the Commission’s flawed premise that the arrival of bicameralism in 1961 had completed the transplantation of the Westminster model.
Unlike salaried MPs in Britain, MPs in T&T and Senators, members of the House of Lords are only reimbursed for their expenses. As it was observed perceptively by a disgruntled Senator during the blue note revolt in 1969, ‘the fact that the Government decided, in the first place, to give Senators a salary is because they are aware that we are not comparable with the House of Lords’ The facts speak for themselves.
If not Westminster in T&T, what then? And, given that the strong second chamber envisaged in 1955 disappeared without trace after 1956, is it of any relevance? If so, what was its function and, indeed, what does this disclose about the function of the weak Senate from 1961?
Finally, what conclusions are to be drawn from all this about Dr Williams’ ingenuous argument, in commending his proposals in 1955, that if the British Constitution was good for Britain, it was good for T&T? These are the questions to be addressed in Part 4 of this exercise.
• Rawle Boland is a barrister and political scientist
— This is the sixth of a 10-part series on constitutional reform that appears in the Express on Mondays