belize-senateBelize Senate members prior to changes

I apologise to my intellectual friends who may find my remedial civics lesson to be too basic for their large brains, but as we move forward to the implementation of the 13th Senator Amendment, a layman’s view of the situation may come in handy.

Here goes:

Democracies and systems of governance evolve, but the principles of Democracy remain the same.   Democracy originated more than 2,400 years ago in ancient Greece. The word “democracy” means “rule by the people.” The principal purposes for which the People establish democratic government are the protection and promotion of their rights, interests, and welfare.

In our context, the “people”refers to the citizens of Belize.  They and only they should, by principle, have the authority to determine the actions of their democratically elected leaders.

The Senate, or upper House of Parliament, has held the responsibility for ratifying bills that have been passed by the Lower House, recommending amendments to bills, even delaying of bills, but never the power to overturn bills for passage.  The Senate, by its nature, has been a sounding board for intellectual discussion on important bills, often a more sane discussion forum void of the flowery speeches and heavily politicised performances by Members of the House.  Senate appointments have always been based on sectoral representative interests from civil society and commerce, with the majority of members appointed by the party holding the majority of seats in the house..  This democratic structure ensured that the government’s mandate is carried out while ensuring that the bills get the public airing is full prior to passage.  The Senate, in essence has traditionally held the role of the calmer statesmanlike but agreeable brother to the more rambunctious House of Representatives.

The Senate, up until the appointment of the 13th Senator, has never been in strict compliance with the above-stated principles of democracy, though in practise the composition of the Senate ensured that the it always acted in line with the wishes of the majority. The passage of legislation to expand the senate to 13 by adding one more social partner, however, will fundamentally change the dynamics under which that principle is practiced.  By taking away that constitutional majority from the hands of the ruling party, that traditionally agreeable brother suddenly has the option to disagree with the house.  Now the power to disagree in itself is rather limited.  That power is limited to the legislated power of the Senate which allows it, by majority vote, to delay non-money bills for up to 6 months.  As best this can prove to be a nuisance to a government that requires expediency on issues of national importance that need to be legislated urgently, or at worse, it can lead to a stalemate in cases where crucial national matters are unduly held up.

On the surface that seems like a good thing, except that the granting of such powers to a non-elected body violates the above-stated principle of democracy.  In reality, the powers are not new, they always existed, but they were always checked by the ruling party’s majority, so there was little concern that the decisions of the Senate would ever vary from the decisions of the democratically elected majority, in line with that basic principle of democracy.

The problem lies in the composition of the Senate and the looseness of the criteria upon which the selection of appointees are based.  Prior to the amendment, the 12 senators were appointed as follows:

Senators are appointed by the Governor General in the following manner:

  • 6 with the advice of the Prime Minister
  • 3 with the advice of Leader of the Opposition
  • 1 each with the advice of the following organizations jointly:
    • the Belize Council of Churches and Evangelical Association of Churches
    • the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Belize Business Bureau
    • the National Trade Union Congress of Belize and the Civil Society Steering Committee

In practice, the party that wins the general election (by capturing the most seats in the lower house of representatives) also controls the Senate. In previous incarnations, eight senators were appointed, five by the Prime Minister, two by the Leader of the Opposition and one by the Governor General and the Belize Advisory Council. One more senator was given to the opposition beginning in the 1990s. In the event of a tie vote, the President of the Senate held a special vote that becomes the tie-breaker, and since that President is also a Government appointee, the party with the majority automatically retains the control of the Upper House.

With the addition of a 4th non-partisan senator, this time from the NGO community, the balance shifts whereby the President’s tie-breaker ability becomes null and void, since there would likely never be a tie unless a member abstains or is absent from the sitting.  Effectively senators that form the group not appointed by the Government in power can now vote and succeed against bills passed in the House by the majority members.  Effectively, persons not selected by the people gain power over those that were elected by the majority.

The undemocratic nature of this new arrangement is further exacerbated by the criteria upon which the Civil Society senators are selected.  These particular senators are appointed by leaders in their respective social area. In the case of the Business Senator, that person is to be elected by the Belize Chamber of Commerce (BCCI) and the Business Bureau, an all but defunct institution.  The BCCI itself represents only a small percentage of the business community, with virtually no representation of the majority Asian-owned businesses or small businesses, and meetings to elect the Senator are often stacked by political parties to ensure a favourable outcome.   The Senator representing the NTUCB is appointed on a rotation basis, with each union that falls under its mandate having a turn at the wheel.  The Member representing the Churches are similarly rotated and recent events show that much discontent surround that rotation with religious factions competing to gain the seat.  The most recent addition allows for an NGO member of the senate.

NGOs in Belize consist of groups that advocate for environmental, social and other issues. While there is clear criteria for what constitutes an NGO in good standing, that criteria fails to address issues like control of those organisations.  While some management may be local and those managers may be Belizean nationals, the NGOs themselves my be managed by a foreign board and most likely may be funded from foreign sources.

This latest addition places a further dent on our democracy.  Based on the candidates that have already been nominated (and I place no aspersions on the characters of the nominated persons, as I feel that they are all fine Belizeans), there is a high likelihood that the deciding vote on the furtherance of bills covering national issues may be in the hands of a senator that is representing a foreign interest.

It is clear that the framers of this amendments did not consider these anomalies, or perhaps this was the reason why the Prime Minister delayed the enactment of this amendment.  Those that recently took industrial action to force the enactment into law and the operationalisation of it in practice, surely must have seen these flaws.   For an opposition, it may serve in their favour in that if they are able to convince the civil society members to vote along with them, they can overcome a loss in the house.  The teaming up of special interests; opposition/civil society/foreign agendas now have a shot at stymieing the progress of the democratically elected government; chosen by majority vote by the people, the citizens of Belize.

In Republican systems like the United States, this upper/lower house dilemma does not exist, since both houses are elected; and a further check valve is built into the system which is the veto power of the President.  We have no such check valve, and a deadlock in our democracy, as can now happen, could prove devastating in times of a national urgency.

My belief is the democracies should progress not regress.  We gained independence from a colonial power in 1981, but this latest NGO addition to our legislature is nothing but an opening for foreign interference into our governance.  A Senator representing an entity that is not a “citizen of Belize” is far from the principle of democracy.

The die is cast and the 13th Senator will be appointed and that Senator will be from the NGO community, but perhaps it is time for a serious bi-partisan and even national re-look at the rules and criteria that govern Senate appointments or elections, and this must happen now before we regret this Amendment that is upon us.