Sunday, January 21, 2018

Time to open up the Senate

The upcoming selection/election of our next President has awakened citizens to the rubber- stamping process by which the Parliament will inevitably endorse the Prime Minister's nominee.

Many have jumped to the conclusion that the only democratic solution is to replace the Westminster parliamentary system with a US style direct election of an executive president.

Not so fast.... Why is our Parliament so constrained? Unlike any other Commonwealth country, it provides a built-in majority for any Government proposal, unless all Opposition and Independent Senators vote together against. This arrangement, together with the unlimited number of non-elected ministers in the Senate, effectively undermines the review purpose of an upper chamber, meant to ensure that possible errors and omissions (shades of Section 34!) can be identified and sent back to the House for reconsideration and amendment before being imposed on citizens. As a society we owe much to the public-spirited dedication of our Independent Senators but they remain outnumbered and outgunned by partisan politics. Democratic governments are required to persuade a Senate, not co-opt it.

In T&T, long dominated by race-based parties, a Senate dominated instead by representatives of issues-based groups – ranging from farmers to athletes, private sector to labour, child care advocates to environmentalists, educators, scientists, mayors and local government chairman, etc –could provide us with a more democratic electoral college for choosing a president and could ensure that governments are exposed to the real concerns of citizens on an ongoing basis. oversight of state enterprises, for example, could become meaningful.

The limitations of traditional democratic representation only on the basis of one man one vote based on geographic location has become increasingly apparent and the UN and other international organisations now routinely involve agreed categories of civil society representatives in policy consultations.

The UNDP has established a list of about 13 categories of civil society organisations for such consultations. We would have to establish our own categories. Ideally, those groups should agree internally on their representatives and be able to change them at will.

Realistically, we need first to agree on the categories entitled to Senate representation and require the President to appoint representatives from those categories – until the groups themselves get their acts together by building internal collaboration thus earning the right to elect reps themselves.

Expanding our Senate in this way would give our Parliament access to a range of issues-based expertise and would inevitably exert pressure for more equity, accountability and transparency in our governance systems.

So, let's deepen our democracy by expanding the Senate as Lloyd Best suggested. Join the conversation on creating a Citizens Manifesto at www.

Sheilah Solomon

via e-mail