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In defence of independent senators

Sunday, September 27, 2015
Douglas Mendes

The Senate comprises 31 people, 16 of whom are selected by the Prime Minister, six by the Leader of the Opposition, and nine by the President in his own discretion. To be qualified to be appointed to the Senate, a person must be a citizen of T&T and aged 25 or above. 

A person is disqualified if he or she is a citizen of another country, is a member of the House of Representatives, is bankrupt, mentally ill, under sentence of death, serving a term of imprisonment exceeding 12 months, convicted of an offence relating to an election or not qualified to be registered as an elector in parliamentary elections. 

These qualifications and disqualifications apply to all senators equally. In relation to those senators selected by the President, the only limitation provided for under the Constitution is that they must be “outstanding persons” belonging to “economic or social or community organisations and other major fields of endeavour.” 

There is prohibition against the President's senators being members of or affiliated to a political party, whether of the Government or the Opposition, far less that he or she should have no political preference or leanings. 

It is also significant that the nine senators selected by the President are not referred to in the Constitution as “Independent Senators,” nor are they required by the Constitution to be “independent”, whatever meaning one may wish to put on that word.

Nevertheless, we expect the President's senators to act independently, by which we mean that they are expected to make their contributions in the Senate and to cast their votes in accordance with what they individually consider to be the right thing to do, and not because of some predetermined predilection for either the Government or the Opposition. 

He or she is not to be another mouthpiece or conduit of any of the contending political parties in Parliament. Although not finding any expression in the Constitution, one might say that this is one of its unwritten principles.

This does not mean that independent senators are not expected to have developed views which happen to coincide with the thinking of the Government or the Opposition. Neither does it mean that they are not to favour one party over another in an election. You do not relinquish your constitutional right to your own political views because you sit on the independent Senate benches. It does mean that they are expected to bring to bear on proceedings in Parliament the wealth of their own personal and professional experiences and to approach each issue they are called upon grapple with, with the sole goal of furthering the public interest and not that of the political party they might tend to prefer for the time being. And it does mean that there must be occasions when they will part company with their party of choice when their conscience tells them to do so. In that regard, they are unlike senators appointed by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition who are expected to tow the party line. 

So does that mean that an independent senator who accepts an appointment to a state board or enterprise has somehow betrayed his or her independence as a senator or has provided proof that she was not independent after all during her term in office? The Leader of the Opposition seems to think so. 

She appears to believe that anyone who heeds the call to serve the public in an official capacity must be a diehard supporter of the ruling party. 

Unwittingly, she has opened a window to her philosophy of governance. It is not a pretty sight. It is a philosophy borne of the belief that the spoils of an election are for the ruling party's supporters only. It is only devotees of the rising sun who are to be appointed to state boards, whether they are qualified or not. It is only lawyers who are loyal to the Peoples Partnership who are to be given state briefs. 

So ingrained is this world view in her psyche, so natural does it appear to her that the state's largesse is to be reserved for her party's lackeys, that she projects her value system onto all others. 

So, to her way of thinking, Helen Drayton could not possibly have been independent after all because she has now accepted the Prime Minister's invitation to chair CNMG's Board. 

This is not simply an approach to governance which is borderline unconstitutional, it is also short sighted and counterproductive. Restricting the pool of talent from which a government will select those who will serve on state boards or would otherwise benefit from state contracts to party supporters only, punishes those who choose to exercise their constitutional right to a political view different to the ruling party, and deprives the Government potentially of better qualified patriots willing to assist in running the country. It is a philosophy of governance destined to divide, not unite, to alienate, not integrate.

When the Government changed in 2010, there was a full-scale campaign launched to rid the state sector of every and anyone perceived to be sympathetic to the PNM. Many people spoke openly of ethnic cleansing. This Government must not respond in kind. The Prime Minster has pledged to govern for all Trinbagonians. Let’s hold him to that promise. Helen Drayton's appointment is a good start.


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