The ultimate parliamentary deterrent
The drive for further political reform continued after 1968 and the adoption of a written constitution by British order. But change came slowly.
There was the unresolved, unfinished business of the electoral system and whether parish-based, dual-seat constituencies fairly represented the will of the electorate.
The opposition Progressive Labour Party was steadfast in its commitment to single-seat constituencies, underpinned as it would be by one person, one vote — each vote of equal value.
As is well known today, that change came at the turn of this century under the first PLP government.
There was also the vexatious issue of the three-year residency vote and the undue influence this vote was believed to have had in key, marginal constituencies. It was phased out in 1979 after another Constitutional Conference, this time in Bermuda at Warwick Camp.
Universal suffrage became the norm in 1968. Voters had to be 21 years old, subsequently lowered to 18 years of age in 1989.
There were some other cosmetic changes along the way, all helping to give the appearance that Bermuda was becoming a more modern jurisdiction: Government Leader was changed to Premier; members for this and that department became ministers for this and that department; and what was known as the Executive Council became the Cabinet.
Oddly enough, the Upper House known as the Legislative Council kept that name was until it was changed to the Senate in 1980.
But the real change was that which was occurring steadily but surely in the operation of government through the consolidation of political power away from the Legislature and into the Executive branch, thereby making possible the claim that Cabinet, not Parliament, is supreme.
Such consolidation, while usually coveted by the party in power, undercuts parliamentary authority, and would appear to undermine the role of the Legislature.
It is by design and not accident that the Legislature comes before that of the Executive, aka Cabinet, in the Order; although both follow the office and duties of the Governor.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, serving as a reminder of our actual constitutional status, which is further underscored by the very definition of the Legislature in the chapter’s opening section:
“There shall be a Legislature for Bermuda which shall consist of Her Majesty, a Senate and a House of Assembly.” (The added emphasis is mine.)
The Legislature is stated to have the power under the Constitution Order to “make laws for the peace, order and good government of Bermuda” — a phrase that is notably consistent in its wording with the constitutional language of those times.
It confirmed our right to self-government, up to a point. There were and are exceptions, matters that are reserved for the Governor, such as defence and internal security, notwithstanding some modifications over the years.
The Legislature, once elected, is the body from which power is derived. What the Legislature gives, the Legislature by vote can take away. That’s the theory, anyway.
But practice is something else under party politics. Members are expected to toe the party line. Any differences are required to be resolved privately, in the party caucus, and the party line advanced on the floor of the House through voice, if you speak, and by vote, if you are present.
This is the way responsible government works or works most effectively, or so we are told; and there is some truth in it, if as the Government you want to actually get things get done.
Excesses can, however, be curbed. It takes a strong back bench and a willing Opposition. We have seen this in operation before: most notably in the final years of the United Bermuda Party government over an independence referendum and a McDonald’s restaurant, along with the changes and defeats these controversial issues wrought; and more recently with just the mere threat of a no-confidence motion that prompted the leader of the One Bermuda Alliance government to call an early election, which led to resounding defeat at the polls.
The ultimate parliamentary deterrent, perhaps, but effective.
• John Barritt was a member of the House of Assembly for 18 years
• Next: Cheques and balances
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