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Legislative numbers game a perennial challenge

Numbers are important, sure, and our number of parliamentary representatives — 47 in total — is an issue that crops up for debate every now and again.

A reduction in numbers in the legislature would also mean fewer members to populate watchdog legislative committees, both in number and in motivation

A regular reader, and good friend, very recently raised the issue after columns that I had written on two seemingly unrelated subjects: whether our Senate should be elected, and by way of proportional representation, and on the need for a far more visible and active Public Accounts Committee.

While there may be no obvious connection, he thinks in short that the real problem is that we suffer from “overrepresentation” and that a big savings could be realised by cutting the number by as much as half.

First, a bit of history. For those who don’t know, “overrepresentation” appears to have been a longstanding tradition in Bermuda — and from Day 1.

When the first representative assembly was called in 1620, now some 400 years ago, initially there were two representatives for each tribe (eight) and four from the Common Lands, for a total of 20 members. Meanwhile, the entire population is reported to have been no more than 1,500 people — which would have included women, children, indentured servants and some slaves. Only white males would have been able to vote, and to serve, making for a very small ratio of voters per elected representative.

By way of contrast, today’s ratio would appear positively extravagant: roughly one MP per 1,275 voters.

At some point, not long after, the number was increased to four per parish — 36 in total — and there was an attempt to cut the number back to two per parish, but it failed. Historian Colin Benbow, who enjoyed a term as an MP, recorded in his work, The 375th Anniversary of Parliamentary Institutions in Bermuda, that it failed because: “News of the Royal Assent was never received, a not infrequent occurrence in those days”. Such was the state of communication in the late 17th century.

The number of MPs reached a high of 40 in 1968 — Pembroke was given eight, all the other parishes four each — and it wasn’t until we moved from dual-seat constituencies to single-seat constituencies in 2003 that the number was reduced to 36.

That was the result of the work of a Constituency Boundaries Commission established back then under the Bermuda Constitution Order 1968, specifically to determine boundaries and the number of seats in moving to single-seat constituencies.

Disclosure-of-interest note: I was a member.

The commission had to wrestle with what was an appropriate number of representatives so as to produce a government and an Opposition that were, in total, as representative as they could be of the voting population. Recognising that as many as one third could end up in Cabinet, there was the need to ensure there were enough MPs to form a formidable back bench — at least in terms of numbers — to fulfil the important role of a check and balance on the exercise of executive power, whether in caucus or in the legislature.

That’s the theory, anyhow. Practice may be something altogether different. That’s my reader’s point, I think. So reduce the number, along with a proportionate reduction in the Cabinet, he argues, and save the Government some money.

But cutting the number in half has consequences. If experience elsewhere is any example, small numbers can make for large majorities and a sizeable proportion of the voting population will go unrepresented in the legislature. Absent the introduction of some form of voting by proportional representation, for which it appears there is no appetite.

A reduction will also mean fewer members to populate watchdog legislative committees, both in number and in motivation.

So what else is new, asks the reader? Point. Still, always be careful what you wish for.

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Published December 02, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated December 01, 2020 at 5:30 pm)

Legislative numbers game a perennial challenge

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