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Looking at overrepresentation

Boundaries Commission chairman Sir Frank Blackman, left, and judicial member Sir Brian Smedley during a sitting in 2002 that resolved there would be 36 single-seat constituencies

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee of the British House of Commons has invited members of the public in Overseas Territories to tell the committee what they think of the status of their respective relationships with the United Kingdom. Submissions have been invited so that the committee can assess whether those relationships are satisfactory and appropriate in today’s modern world — and, presumably, to entertain what steps may be taken to improve those relationships. Former MP and columnist John Barritt has penned a series of columns that will form the basis of submissions he intends to share with the British parliamentary committee. Readers are invited to share their views on the matters that he raises and on any other matters you think should be taken into account. Your comments and suggestions will be forwarded to the committee, along with those of the author. You may submit them in the online comment sections at the end of each column or e-mail jbarritt@ibl.bm.

One of the more common refrains for constitutional revision concerns the number of Members of Parliament. The spotlight also falls on the number of appointed senators — further, whether Bermuda should even continue to have a second Upper Chamber.

Criticism centres chiefly on whether we are overrepresented with 36 MPs and a voting population of about 48,000 voters, which equates to roughly 1,300 voters per MP — and that is without taking into account the 11 members in the Senate. Critics also focus on the cost savings that could be achieved by a reduction in number.

This “overrepresentation” is nothing new. It has been that way since Day 1 in Bermuda. Apparently, our earliest representative assemblies boasted as many as 40 members chosen from an estimated total population of 1,500 settlors. History has it that the settlors felt that there was strength in numbers in standing up against the potential and actual overbearingness of governors.

That was not uppermost in 1968 with passage of The Bermuda Constitution Order, which ushered in 40 elected members after the 1966 Constitutional Conference in London that saw the adoption of 20 dual-seat constituencies. Such constituencies were the preference of the United Bermuda Party, which went on to form successive governments until the 1998 election when the Progressive Labour Party won the government for the first time. It was not long thereafter, during its first term of office, that the PLP sought what it had advocated for at the 1966 conference, and since — single-seat constituencies of equal numbers of voters.

This required amendment to the Constitution Order and the terms of the Boundaries Commission. It was this commission that decided on 36 members and the boundaries of 36 new constituencies.

That was no easy task. But it is worth pausing here and noting that this was accomplished without controversy or rancour. It had a lot to do with the make-up of the commission: two independents, one of them judicial, both appointed by the Governor, and two representatives each from the Government (PLP) and the Opposition (UBP). There were written and oral submissions, as well as public meetings before a final decision on seats and constituency boundaries, which was, incidentally and instructively, unanimous. A fair and reasonable mechanism for collaboration on constitutional reform can and does work.

(Note: a columnist’s declaration of interest here — I was a member of that commission along with Dame Pamela Gordon for the UBP, while Dame Lois Browne-Evans and senior parliamentarian Eugene Cox represented the PLP.)

A computer program drove the selection of boundaries once we decided on seats. Numbers put up for consideration, including from the public, ranged from as low as 17 to as high as 40.

The downside to smaller numbers is that once a Cabinet is selected — it can be as large as 12 under the Constitution Order — there will be very few members on the back bench. A Speaker has to also be chosen from that number. An Opposition? What Opposition? Plus any hope for an effective committee system is lost: think the Public Accounts Committee and the oversight it is meant to provide.

There is a concern, too, that smaller numbers would lead to disproportionate majorities and a swath of the electorate would go unrepresented in the legislature — as has been the case elsewhere in smaller jurisdictions.

While it is true that the existing electoral make-up has brought us governments with huge majorities, and large back benches, and a committee system that has not developed as strongly as it should, any reduction in numbers must take all of the above factors into consideration.

Nevertheless, the composition of the legislature is ripe for constitutional review and discussion. Any number of ideas may come forward. These may well include a smaller Cabinet, fixing by amendment how many can be selected to offset a reduction in the numbers of MPs.

There is no reason why the Senate should not also come under review. There have been always questions about whether we should even have one, given its limited powers. On the other hand, with a reduction in the House of Assembly, is it time to strengthen its powers and make it an elected body? Elected by proportional representation from three districts — East, West and Central? With fixed, five-year terms?

The proposals could be myriad and welcome. The role of the legislature in the overall Government of Bermuda should be examined from time to time and, where possible, strengthened — not diminished.

NEXT: What other further constitutional changes could be in the mix?

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Published July 18, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated July 25, 2023 at 2:12 pm)

Looking at overrepresentation

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