Senate could be place to start for parliamentary savings
If we are agreed that it is change Bermuda needs, then be prepared to do some heavy lifting. Change doesn’t just happen and it doesn’t come easy.
A nuts-and-bolts blueprint in which people can participate, and buy into, would make for a good start. First up for review and reform is the Bermuda Constitution Order 1968. This is the document that established the governance architecture under which we operate, and have operated, for more than 50 years.
There have been some changes over the years, and arguably the most dramatic was the move at the turn of the century from dual-seat constituencies to single-seat districts. The number of Members on the Hill was also reduced from 40 to 36. The Senate was left untouched.
Notwithstanding that small reduction, criticism persists that Bermuda has more Members than it needs and that we could benefit from a further reduction. If the goal is a financial savings, the impact would be achievable and immediate. But any reduction in numbers has implications.
Factor in what role we want our MPs to play. This is the pool from which a Cabinet is drawn, and if there is to be a reduction in the numbers of Members, there ought to be a concomitant reduction in ministers. Governance is thought to work best when there are a sufficient number of backbenchers, on both the government and opposition benches, to perform two desirable functions:
• To serve as reserves, or alternatives, if you will, for those who perform poorly in Cabinet
• To provide legislative oversight of the policies, decisions and spending of the Executive, aka Cabinet
Checks and balances are an important feature of any parliamentary democracy. This is part of what helps to bring about accountability and transparency.
The Auditor-General and Ombudsman are additional key constitutional components, the latter having been introduced into the 1968 Order at the turn of the century. The same constitutional protection and status for the Information Commissioner would send a strong signal, too.
Add to that list the Public Accounts Committee, which could benefit from similar constitutional elevation, given the role it is supposed to play, but has not been fully performing pursuant to Standing Orders of the House.
Reverting to the Senate: this is the “Upper” body that was once thought to provide additional oversight, serving as a possible check and a balance on any excesses of the “Lower” House. Those days have long been over. Members are appointed not elected. The Senate cannot vote and defeat the Government on financial matters. It can only turn back and delay legislation for up to a year. These restraints make sense for a body that is not elected.
But is the Senate worth the continued cost, if we are looking to effect a savings?
Or if it is to be the body that provides oversight, should its members be appointed or elected? And serve for fixed five-year term? And be voted in at large by voters under a form of proportional representation? A reduction in numbers here may also be in order.
Mind you, there is this widely held view that Britain will not accede to further constitutional changes, except as a prelude to independence. Well, the record is that it has agreed to constitutional change in the recent past, most notably when the Progressive Labour Party first came to power, the PLP having campaigned and won on longstanding promises of change, particularly that to single seats.
The clue here is campaign and waging a campaign that is clearly understood and embraced by a majority of voters. This, folks, is where the heavy lifting comes in. This is what it takes: some assembly.
Mind you, it isn’t just the Constitution Order that needs review and overhaul.
There are other matters within our control on which we do not need the approval and permission of Britain. We could start, for instance, with our Parliament Act 1957 — that’s right 1957, now some 65 years old, which predates the 1968 Order by ten years, and which purports to govern how our legislature should govern itself.
A quick glance at some of the Act’s headings underscores its narrow remit: Immunities and Protection of the Legislature; Control of Precincts and Proceedings; and Evidence Before Legislative Committees.
The latter is the most interesting and intriguing part: if only we had more active legislative committees with meetings open to the public. On this point, the 1957 Act should be amended to make committees and open meetings mandatory: statutory duties for backbench members that can neither be ignored nor evaded.
More heavy lifting, I know.
But it may be one of those times when legislative changes actually begin to change behaviours, which in turn beget new attitudes, and new attitudes, new approaches to the way in which we govern ourselves on and off the Hill.
Tomorrow: What more