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A celebration of checks and balances

Oversight of the Executive is one of the key roles that the Legislature is expected to play in the Westminster system of government. Collectively, members serve as a critical part of the checks and balances the Legislature provides on the exercise of authority by the Executive. Oddly enough, you will not find this duty set out expressly anywhere in the governing 1968 Constitution Order.

Never mind. Practice, convention, precedent and parliamentary procedures can make up for what isn't there; and this, too, is worth remembering, and celebrating, on the 400th anniversary of our legislature.

This is also where an upper house fits in a bicameral legislature; the chamber that gives a second look at legislation that has passed the House of Assembly, ie, our Senate.

Here's how that is meant to work: by majority vote, members can delay a government Bill for a year. Similarly, any agreed and adopted amendments can be sent back to the Lower House for acceptance or rejection. It happens. What cannot happen is that senators cannot vote down and delay any legislation with financial implications.

There is a good reason for that. An unelected body should not be able to thwart the operation of a government that is determined and represented by an elected majority in the House of Assembly.

That same principle has, on occasion, prompted some to question whether we should continue to have an upper house at all. It isn't just a question of cost, although that obviously becomes a consideration when times are tough. It is that three independent senators, all of whom are appointed by the Governor in his absolute discretion, can join the three Opposition appointees on a vote to turn back legislation and thus hold up a government initiative for a year.

The Government's plan for Bermuda's two municipalities is the most recent example. Interesting that. Ironic even. The chief opposition seems to whittle down to this: that the move is nothing more than an asset grab by a government in desperate financial need and, further, that the municipalities do a more efficient job than government could.

A crude generalisation perhaps, but that's the gist, I think.

On the other hand, what this overlooks is a point that I recall the late Sir John Plowman making when municipal reform was under consideration in his day: it makes poor sense to have a narrowly elected body controlling the island's capital, and major port, and that it can do so if it wishes in defiance of a nationally elected government that represents all of Bermuda. There is also the potential to bring to an end an obvious duplication of services.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, these were also reasons why parish vestries were brought to heel some 50 years ago.

That is not to say that there may not be value in having “independent” members in the Legislature. But should they not be elected? While an elected Senate has never been a proposition any one party or group has advanced with any fervour, or at all, any such move would likely be viewed as far too ambitious and expensive — at a time when people are questioning whether Bermuda is already weighted down with an overabundance of members of the Legislature, up and down Parliament Hill.

The House of Assembly has traditionally boasted at least 36 members dating back to the days when each parish had four representatives. The number was increased to 40 in 1968 when Pembroke Parish was assigned eight members, and then put back to 36 when Bermuda moved to single-seat constituencies in 2003.

Some have suggested we cut the number in half and save some money.

But cutting the numbers to, say, 20 members, leaves very little for a back bench and an Opposition if the Cabinet comprises 12. Of course, the maximum in Cabinet could be similarly reduced to seven, but you can query whether that, too, would allow for a strong back bench for the purposes of legislative oversight and ensuring accountability from the government of the day.

Unless, of course, Bermuda made some fundamental changes to its framework of governance with a view to developing and implementing our own “made in Bermuda” standards of governance. After all, there is nothing to say that we cannot modify the Westminster model of government that we have at present.

Not possible? Well, for sure, we won't know until we try, and nothing beats a failure but a try.

John Barritt was a member of the House of Assembly for 18 years

Next: Where to from here?

File photograph by Blaire Simmons

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Published August 04, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated August 04, 2020 at 9:10 am)

A celebration of checks and balances

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