Second political chambers in the Caribbean, often called senates, came under harsh criticism during the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference in Cayman.
One keynote speaker called senates in most Caribbean countries ‘a window dressing forum for participatory democracy.’
Clerk of the Belize National Assembly Conrad Lewis told delegates at the CPA that a regional re-think is needed for how bi-cameral governments, those that have two legislative houses, handle their respective second legislatures.
‘There is a democratic deficit that needs to be bridged,’ Mr. Lewis said. ‘Participatory democracy in the Caribbean is at a crossroad. An effective second chamber can be one avenue to widen and deepen our democracy.’
The Cayman Islands have only one chamber of government, the Legislative Assembly. It consists of 15 elected members, and three appointed members.
The make-up of that chamber and whether Cayman should have a second house in parliament may be a subject of discussion in the upcoming constitutional review process.
‘There may be some proponents of (a second house of the legislature),’ Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts said. ‘What I cannot tell you is whether that is something that the majority of citizens would wish to be.’
Many countries such as Jamaica, the Bahamas, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago have a senate controlled by the majority-elected party in their respective houses of representatives. Mr. Lewis said senators are usually appointed by the ruling governments.
‘(The senate) is a repository for political associates of the political parties,’ he told the conference.
Mr. Lewis said that doesn’t have to be the case. He said political scientists have envisioned Caribbean senates as a check-and-balance measure for the elected government and to provide representation for groups of people not able to secure the election of their members to the legislature.
‘The senate serves as an instrument for governments to tap qualified persons from among the general public to serve in Cabinet when the skill or expertise is not found in the House of Representatives,’ he said.
David Thompson, representing Barbados at the conference, said Caribbean senates could fill that role.
‘The second chamber is an essential part of the democratic process within our countries,’ he said. ‘We need to be looking at how the senate could have more weight. Perhaps the suggestion that senators ought to be elected is something we should be concerned with.’
West Bay Opposition MLA Cline Glidden said elections may be the only way to prevent a second legislative chamber from becoming a rubber stamp.
‘The senate is used to give the perception of checks and balances,’ Mr. Glidden said. ‘But we see that if you’re not carrying out the wishes of the government, then you’re going to be removed.’