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The importance of our Senate

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Our Senate was recently the object of attention, but sadly the focus wasn’t on the role it plays in our system of governance and whether it could benefit from reform.

Pity that.

The issue of reform is worth examination, particularly in the context of recent ruminations. Namely that, first, for a voting population of little more than 46,000 voters, Bermuda is overrepresented; and, second, that first-past-the-post elections have outlived their usefulness and ought to be scrapped in favour of proportional representation.

There is thought to be value in having a bicameral legislature — the fancy term for the division of a legislative body into two chambers. An Upper House is intended to be an integral part of the so-called “checks and balances” that can be an important feature of the Westminster model. Although in tracing its origins here in Bermuda, history shows that the chamber was originally more about keeping the elected Lower House in check.

But let’s stick with the checks-and-balances theory. It would appear that this is what the drafters of the 1968 Bermuda Constitution Order had in mind when we moved to responsible government — and here read in party politics.

The Senate comprises 11 members, five appointed on the advice of the Premier, three on the advice of the Leader of the Opposition and three in the sole discretion of the Governor.

The latter are more commonly known as independents. The independents make check and balance possible, as they can team up with the Opposition appointees to reject and amend government legislation, providing that legislation does not in any way impinge on government funding or spending.

That’s one limit on their power. The other is that they can only delay the legislation, for up to a year, but cannot turn it down outright.

The Senate is also free to debate but not vote on money Bills, and can initiate legislation providing it does not involve financial matters. It can also propose amendments for the reconsideration of the House of Assembly.

The Senate is therefore thought to be the body that provides “a second look” — it also gives the public a further chance to weigh in with their opinions, especially on matters that have stirred up controversy; and, in turn, the Government is extended an opportunity to have a rethink should it think it necessary or desirable.

The Senate may be an irritant for sitting governments, but it is essential as the people’s appointed arbiter of checks and balances (File photograph)

This has happened in the past, including the rejection of legislation — and often to the understandable chagrin of the government of the day, its agenda having been delayed by three non-elected appointees teaming up with the Opposition to frustrate the will of the elected majority.

But checks and balances may be nonetheless regarded as a desirable component of a legislative body that can be subject to the tyranny of a majority.

Would proportional representation be an answer?

The last time it was seriously raised in these parts the idea hardly got off the ground and the system proposed — Proportional Representation by the Single Transferable Vote — was practically laughed out of town.

Too complicated, it was said, not only to explain but to understand, advanced as it was not long after Bermuda had finally moved to universal adult suffrage and one person, one vote — although it was in fact two votes per person, as there were then dual-seat constituencies.

A Senate elected by proportional representation? The number of appointees, say 11 as is the case at present, would be reflective of the support parties have each received in a General Election, the actual members once again selected and nominated by the parties themselves.

A Senate elected on his basis might well make for interesting and challenging times in the legislature, but be nonetheless more representative of voters. The downside might be more factions, more fractious debate, and possibly more counterproductive when it comes to getting things done.

But Senate reform has never really been raised an issue in political platforms. It seems to have become a body that a government puts up with, as irritating as it may be at times.

A case of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? Assuming voters still think it is a body worth keeping, financially and politically.

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Published October 22, 2020 at 1:00 pm (Updated October 21, 2020 at 11:18 pm)

The importance of our Senate

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