Reform The Senate Now!
As Jamaica draws closer to the 50th anniversary of it’s independence, there are several elements of our government that require immediate attention and reform. If we mean to establish ourselves as a truly sovereign nation, we must rid ourselves of the British method of doing things; especially where that method has not been effective in our political reality. I’ve noted that increasingly the Upper House of our parliament, the Senate, has failed to perform as it should, has been abused by the Prime Minister and has displayed shameless partisanship. It is against this backdrop that I am calling on the new administration to move swiftly to begin a comprehensive reform of the Senate.
Section 5 of the Constitution of Jamaica provides for a Senate of Jamaica. Section 5 (34) states that “There shall be a Parliament of Jamaica which shall consist of Her Majesty, a Senate and a House of Representatives.” The same document provides for 21 members to be named to the body, 13 appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister and a further 8 appointed on the advice of The Leader of the Opposition. This is similar to what obtains in the United Kingdom where the House of Lords is made up of life peers, clergymen (known as Lords Spiritual) and other appointees of the Monarch, on the advice of the Prime Minister. This is my first point of contention, how the Senators are appointed. I have long maintained that the Westminster model is dangerous in so far as it vests a significant amount of power in the executive arm, particularly in the Prime Minister.
The recent appointments by Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and Opposition Leader Andrew Holness underscore the need for reform of the selection of senators. The Prime Minister has appointed persons such as Lambert Brown to the Senate. Mr. Brown is a known to be very loyal to the PM and is shamelessly partisan. This, again, appears to be a reward for the boys. For his part, Mr. Holness has appointed persons such as Robert Montaque to the Senate. I have a difficulty with persons rejected by the electorate being given cushy jobs in the Senate. If the electorate rejected you at the polls, you have no business in the Parliament.
By allowing the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader to appoint an entire house of the legislature, we create a dangerous situation where the Senate may become a puppet of the executive arm. In fact, this recently happened in Jamaica. During the Manatt fiasco, the JLP senators unanimously passed a motion supporting the then Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, even where the public was demanding his resignation. The Senate acted improperly in that instance; this was provided for because all 13 Senators who passed that shameful resolution, did so to protect the man to whom they owed their appointment. In my estimation, the legislature exists to protect the interests of the people, not the Prime Minister.
Therefore, it is my considered opinion that the Senate of Jamaica should be directly elected by the Jamaican people. The Constitution should provide for the election of two (2)senators from each parish. This would give us a total of 28 elected senators, if my Math serves me right. The President of Jamaica, assuming Mrs. Simpson Miller’s administration does remove Her Majesty as Head of State, should have the power to appoint the President of the Senate who would preside over it’s sittings and may only have a casting voting in the event that there is a tie among the 28 members. This will create an effective Upper House because the Senate will not become the predictably partisan body the House of Representatives usually is.
We would have a much more rigorous oversight of the executive because we could have a situation where the Senate is controlled by the Opposition and the House is controlled by the Government. Admittedly, this could result in gridlock, as is the case in the U.S. dispensation, but I believe the threat of gridlock would force more compromise and this can only result in stronger, more credible laws and policies being enacted. This would give the Senate a more active and binding role in governance.
A properly elected Senate could also act as the impeachment court, similar to what obtains in the United States and the Phillipines. It may also act as the body that gives scrutiny to the Prime Minister’s selections to the posts of ambassador, public boards, CEOs of the various government agencies etc etc. This will ensure that there is greater accountability and transparency and will result in properly suited and qualified persons being appointed to these positions. All these functions would be in addition to it’s current role of passing legislation.
When the new administration begins the process of removing Her Majesty as Head of State, and establishing the CCJ, the Prime Minister must give serious consideration to the reformation of the Senate, so as to ensure the “good governance” of Jamaica which the Constitution establishes parliament to provide.