Editorial — 22 June 2019
Elected Senate is no mirage

We noted last week, June 11, that Mr. Henry Gordon, who is a former Senator, Chief Meteorologist, and Cabinet Secretary, and is presently a pastor, constitutionalist, newspaper columnist (Amandala), and television host (Plus TV), declared that an editorial suggestion in the Amandala that Belize ditch the 13th Senator Senate for an elected Senate, was a mirage. Mr. Gordon wrote in his column: “What benefit, if any, would Belizeans enjoy by simply replacing the 13th Senator with an Elected Senate, as was suggested in the editorial in the Tuesday Amandala of June 4, 2019?”

Mr. Gordon is a highly educated man, and very dedicated, but he may be showing frustration. He shouldn’t snatch away a candle that has never been lit, to protect a candle (13th Senator Senate) that has not delivered, and, by its composition, cannot.

We hopefully don’t need a study to prove that our present political system, with our present Senate, is failing us. There is just too much poverty, too much violence, too much disillusionment in our country for it to be otherwise. If it is otherwise, meaning our system has no fault, then we’d have to question our intellectual capacity to run a country.

We needn’t worry about our intellectual capacity. To borrow from Lord Laro: “Our scholars have sit and passed every test.” Belize has excellence in the intellectual field. That is not our problem.

Our government model, parliamentary democracy, was inherited from our former colonial masters, the British. In the British system there is an elected branch called the House of Commons (our elected branch is called the House of Representatives), and an unelected branch, called the House of Lords (our unelected branch is called the Senate). In parliamentary democracy the day-to-day business of government is run by the Cabinet, which sometimes includes members from both branches.

It must be remarked that they, the British, unlike us, have not turned their system of government into a dictatorship. The British House of Commons (elected) has 650 members and 22 of them are Ministers in the Cabinet. Our House of Representatives has 31 members, and every member on the government side is either a Minister or a Minister of State.

The House of Lords, like our Senate, does not have a lot of powers. A Wikipedia page on the House of Lords states that, “[the] House of Lords scrutinizes bills that have been approved by the House of Commons. It regularly reviews and amends Bills from the Commons. While it is unable to prevent Bills passing into law, except in certain limited circumstances, it can delay Bills and force the Commons to reconsider their decisions. In this capacity, the House of Lords acts as a check on the House of Commons that is independent from the electoral process.”

The website, www.parliament.uk, says that the House of Lords comprises about 800 members, 26 of whom are spiritual leaders (bishops and archbishops of the Church of England). The website, www.electoral-reform.org.uk, says the “Bishops who sit in the House of Lords or ‘The Lords Spiritual’ date back to the 14th century. In medieval times society was judged to be divided into three estates: the clergy, nobility and everyone else. The bishops aren’t immune to reform and there have been numerous attempts, both successfully and unsuccessfully, to reform them.

“The most recent successful reform was the Bishopric of Manchester Act in 1847 which limited the number of Bishops able to take their seats to 26, the figure they remain to this day.”

Our Senate comprises 13 members, one of whom is a representative of the Belize Council of Churches or the Evangelical Association of Churches. These two bodies alternate the seat, a kind of ‘for me this government, for you the next one’.

Our Senate has evolved over time. At independence, in 1981, the Senate had 8 members. The last PUP government expanded the Senate to 12 members, and it was expanded again, to 13 members, in 2016/2017 by the present UDP government. This 13-member Senate, with seven members who weren’t selected by the ruling party, was supposed to have the teeth to make it unafraid of government. However, it emerged that there was a serious flaw in the structure.

As far as we are aware, the first time it was mandated that a Senate seat go to the churches was when it was expanded to 12 members. Our political leaders might have thought that it was enlightened to give the churches a seat in the Senate, their having copied the British model, almost to the letter. This 12-member Senate was about expanding the discourse, not about yielding power, for the government still had the numbers on their side.

The expressed intention of the 13th Senator Senate was to give up some power. The government that implemented it, for fear the new Senate would be too powerful, hedged some years before doing so, but they needn’t have. That’s because at least one Senator not selected by the government side, is in their hip pocket. This is so because the specific Senator is not obligated to serve Belize.

The churches in our country do not constitute the Church of Belize. What we have are many churches, grounded on the belief in God, scattered by many paths to reach Him. The churches in Belize don’t consider the paramountcy of our nation to be of consequence. For them it is God first, and then the body of nations. Our immediate neighbor to the north, Mexico, feared that the church would hold back the country’s development. In Roots of the Mexican Church Conflict, Chester Lloyd Jones quotes Mexican president, Lazaro Cardenas, as saying: “There is no persecution of the Church in Mexico, but all religious organizations must confine their activities to spiritual affairs.”

When the last Church Senator was selected there was mumbling and grumbling from a section of the churches, the Evangelicals, because many of them felt that their group had been hijacked by a tiny faction. The Council of Churches, who had had their turn in the previous government, made not a peep about the situation. It really wasn’t their concern because it wasn’t their turn. Those whose concern it was, complained, but their hands remained stuck across their chests.

If they were so wronged, why didn’t they do something about it? They didn’t because they can’t be seen going at each other tooth and nail. They bring this same attitude to the Senate. The business of governance is not a tea party. Things can get rough when you are fighting to ensure that the children have food, the students have books, and there is quality health care for all. We cannot depend on the churches in temporal matters. Their concern is spiritual.

It could be that we are doomed. The suggestion was that the Elected Senate is a mirage. We don’t need any more evidence to prove that the 13th Senator Senate marches to the dictates of Cabinet. See the PUP and what they did to the findings of the 2005 Senate Special Select Committee on DFC and SSB business transactions. See the UDP take a page out of the very same book, re: the 2016 Senate Special Select Committee on Immigration.

The Elected Senate, in its first incarnation, needn’t have greater powers than the present Senate has. It need not be a body that can stalemate the government, a la the Republican System.

There is a general election on the horizon and Belize cannot afford to carry on with the same old, same old. Belize is a country with insufficient jobs, struggling agro-industries, relatively substantial commitments (pensions, social security), and a lot of hopelessness. We are in desperate need of a vibrant economy and a transparent, accountable democracy. We won’t attain those goals if we stay on the path we are on now.

The things that we see that are wrong in the system, must be corrected. Now is always better than later. We need a body that doesn’t have to beg the government for permission to investigate suspect transactions and decisions. That body is not the 13th Senator Senate. We insist that it be an elected body.

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Deshawn Swasey

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