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Kevin O'Brien Chang: Independent senators needed

Published:Friday | February 13, 2015 | 2:00 AM

Nearly all Jamaicans, apart from orange and green diehards, would like to see some independence of thought in our legislature. Alas, every single member of parliament since Independence has come from the PNP and JLP, and our Constitution stipulates 13 senators from the governing party and eight from the opposition party.

Some say our senators should be free from party bias, but which party leader is going to put fate in the hands of someone he or she does not believe is 100 per cent faithful to the party's cause? No sensible leader nurtures snakes in the bosom, especially when he or she has no power to dismiss any appointee who veers off course. So given our current setup, blind loyalty and diehard tribalism will nearly always be the order of the day.

There have been exceptions. In 1997, the PNP got a second consecutive massive parliamentary majority - 50 to 10, after 52 to 8 in 1993. So P.J. Patterson, to his great credit, tried to alleviate this legislative lopsidedness by not choosing the usual 13 government senators, but appointing 11 government senators and two independent senators, Trevor Munroe and Douglas Orane.

This was a clear acknowledgement of the reality that government senators are supposed to vote with the government, and opposition ones with the opposition. By designating Mr Munroe and Mr Orane 'independent', he was obviously encouraging them to vote without regard to party line.

Mr Patterson further affirmed this stance in 2002. With the PNP parliamentary seat margin now only 34-26, he apparently felt he could not afford the luxury of 'independents'. For he named a full slate of 13 government senators, including Mr Munroe, who was now clearly expected to vote with the government. To be sure, this sudden mindset switch made many question how 'independent' Mr Munroe had been in the first place. But to the generous minded, it was the thought that counted.

I personally would like to see Mr Patterson's 1997 logic codified. There is no reason, for instance, that Jamaica could not have a Senate like Trinidad and Tobago, composed of government, opposition and independent senators. Independents are 'appointed by the president in his discretion from outstanding persons from economic or social or community organisations and other major fields of endeavour.' (However the 16 government, six opposition and nine independent proportioning of T&T senators does seem a bit haphazard.)

T&T senators can also be dismissed at any time by the person who has chosen them.

'A senator shall also vacate his seat in the Senate where ... the president, acting in accordance with the advice of the prime minister in the case of a senator appointed in accordance with that advice, or in accordance with the advice of the leader of the Opposition in the case of a senator appointed in accordance with that advice, or in his discretion in the case of a senator appointed by him in his discretion, declares the seat of that senator to be vacant.'

This makes perfect sense. The only criterion for senators, after all, is that the person choosing them thinks them suitable for the job. If they lose their appointer's confidence, why should they be allowed to remain in the job?

 

FIRING POWER

 

The ability of appointers to fire, as well as hire, would likely up the intellectual quality of the Senate. Leaders are much more likely to take a gamble on bright persons whose loyalty they are not completely sure of, if they know they can dismiss those who go uncontrollably 'rogue'.

Jamaica now could add two independent senators and still maintain the critical balance, where more than one-third are opposition senators. For this is what prevents any government that has two-thirds or more of parliamentary seats from running roughshod over the Constitution, which logic suggests is the reason for the current 13 government to eight opposition count.

So a possible senatorial set-up would be 13 government, eight opposition and two independents appointed by the governor general. Even if the two independents vote with government, the Opposition still has more than one-third of votes, that is 8/23.

Surely having some entrenched independence in our Senate, while preserving its inherent anti-populist stability, would be an improvement on our current situation?