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The Senate's questionable democratic status

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

The Jamaican Senate is a bicameral deliberative assembly within the Jamaican Parliament or the legislature of Jamaica. It is a non-elected body made up of 21 senators who are appointed by the governor general on the advice of the prime minister and the leader of the Opposition. The Senate is a historic assembly with a questionable democratic status, especially in the Jamaican experience. Does the Jamaican Senate embody the traditional democratic values of representative governance?


Is the senate a democratic institution?

Since the Senate is a non-elected body then it can be argued that it is not a democratic institution. However, it may also be argued that the Senate promotes democratic values and/or complements the democratic framework.

The Senate consists of individuals above the reach of the electorate's authority and they are usually chosen from the ranks of corporate elites, party loyalists, experts, and the children of politicians. The Senate originated as an idea to include wise men in office to guide the affairs of government, and this goal is arguably achieved when taking into consideration senators such as Ruel Reid, K D Knight and Don Wehby, who deliver expertise in their relative fields in government.

Similar to the House of Lords in Britain, the Jamaican Senate has acted as a hereditary chamber, spring-boarding the children of politicians into other parts of government. Senators such as Imani Duncan-Price, Pearnel Charles Jr, and even Kamina Johnson Smith are the children of Jamaican politicians who, it can be argued, used the Senate as an unregulated means of bringing their children into the business. Most other senators are, in effect, party loyalists who either lost their bid for the House of Representatives or diehards who toiled in the service of the party for years.

From this perspective it can be argued that the Senate is the back door to democratic governments through which unelected officials are given legislative authority, and even major Cabinet portfolios, without ever passing under the scrutiny of the electorate.


Do we really need the Senate?

Does the Senate contribute to the productivity of the Government in the best interest of the people? This may be a difficult result to measure, but since the roots of the Senate lie in allowing wise men to administer in the interest of the people, it may be assumed that the Senate does contribute to the productivity of the Government in the people's best interest.

But does it?

The Senate is said to be a review chamber, considering Bills passed by the House of Representatives. By this definition, this oversight committee is basically entrusted with the authority to “review” the dictates of the elected representatives of the people.

This highly undemocratic role is the focal point in determining whether the Senate is even needed. Is it that the members of the House of Representatives occasionally lack the knowledge to structure Bills or to assess all the relevant interests when drafting legislation? Or is it that the possible inconsistencies within the House of Representatives cause doubt as to whether Parliament can efficiently operate under such sectarian divide? Whatever the reason may be for a group of unelected officials to be reviewing the work of the nation's elected officials, this oversight role is definitely not a necessity within government and does not significantly affect the functions of government if it were to be removed.

Unlike judges who are selected to the judiciary for their capacity as experienced attorneys, what professional criterion is required to become a senator? Is the Senate a necessity in the Jamaican democratic experience? Should we discard the Senate and reduce Government's size and spending? Do we really need our senators?

It is understandable, though, that the Senate is a means by which governments can include experts and very capable politicians who are unlikely to win a seat in Parliament. Also, it is unquestionable that Parliament may benefit from having an internal regulative mechanism to balance its operations. But does the Jamaican Senate execute any of these roles?

From this humble assessment it can be viewed that the Senate of Jamaica does not embody the democratic principles of representative government. Arguably, the Senate is a special interest group hidden within the confines of the legislature and parading itself as a legitimate democratic institution. Although the Senate is an effective means of including unelectable professionals who can contribute unique expertise to the running of government, Senators are rarely ever selected for such a purpose. How many senators do you think have been selected for their ability to improve government, rather than their ties to the party?

In the Jamaican setting, the Senate is many times used as a springboard to the House of Representatives where the legitimate power really lies. So special interest politicians tend to start off as 'unknown' senators who are sometimes given major portfolios and the media attention that goes with it. Sooner or later the public gets so acquainted with them that they eventually elect them as MPs. Could these unknown senators have won their seats as MPs without the initial Senate exposure?

In the broader sense, the Senate embodies the idea that electors are too stupid to elect the wisest leaders so an undemocratic back door to the Government must be made available to smuggle in wise men after an election.

The Jamaican Senate is very similar to the House of Lords in Britain in that it maintains the status quo over long periods of time, supposedly by containing the diverse legislative expressions of a constantly changing House of Representatives. The Senate is even given the esteemed title of the Upper House, while the House of Representatives is referred to as the Lower House — a sign of the Senate's undemocratic desire to administer over the legislative dictates of elected representatives. The Senate is arguably one of the means by which the rich maintains elitist supremacy by funding political campaigns and later anonymously suggesting themselves or their representatives as candidates for the Senate. I argue that the elected officials whom the people gave their approval should undergo no review or regulation from neither the so called review chamber (the Senate) nor the head of State, also seeks to verify the legislative dictates of the House of Representatives through the power of the “royal ascent” on Acts passed by Parliament. These mechanisms are undemocratic because they give power to unelected bodies that review the actions of the House of Representatives.


Toraino Beckford, LLB, hails from Savanna-la-Mar, Westmoreland. Send comments to the Observer or to