Reforming Our Parliament


THE Constitutional Reform Commission says Saint Lucians would like to see a parliamentary system where there is more scrutiny of public affairs and less dominance of a party line on all aspects of the functioning of Parliament.

That view is put forward in the Commission’s report which was recently debated in the island’s parliament.

Today we continue serializing the report with more from Chapter Five which is titled REFORMING OUR PARLIAMENT:

The Westminster Parliamentary Model

Independence constitution accepted the parent model of the Westminster parliamentary system. In essence the model of Government is defined by the following criteria:
a) A dual executive (split between the Head of Government and the Head of State).
b) A Parliament which has formal or informal powers.
c) A Cabinet (Executive) which is the collective decision making body.
d) The Cabinet which is politically responsible to the parliamentary representatives.
e) A parliamentary majority which can force the Cabinet to resign through the no confidence motion. As such, parliamentary Governments are typically defined by Governments that rise and fall on the basis of the confidence of the parliament.

The Chief Executive (The Prime Minister) must therefore be supported by a majority in the Legislative branch.
f) As governments rise and fall on the basis of the confidence of the Parliament, the terms of office of the Government and the parliament are not fixed. Essentially therefore, the Cabinet is supposed to be accountable to the parliament.
g) Collective and individual responsibility of the Cabinet and the ministers to the parliament.
h) The Prime Minister’s ability to dissolve the parliament.
i) Strong party discipline
j) Fusion of power between the executive and legislative branches of Government.
k) Typically too, in Westminster parliamentary democracies, the Head of Government (the Prime Minister) is not popularly elected.

Simply put, parliamentary Government can be defined/viewed as a form of constitutional democracy in which executive authority emerges from, and is responsible to, legislative authority and is thus accountable to the parliament. In this way parliament can dismiss a government through an ordinary or constructive vote of no confidence.

The Parliamentary Westminster model of Government also concentrates power in the executive branch which when supported by the majority in the legislature, enables it to carry out the wishes of the parliamentary majority. Thus, in order to work effectively, the executive branch of Government and its parliamentary majority must work in tandem and in close cooperation. To ensure this close cooperation between the Cabinet and the legislative majority, strong party discipline is expected.

Further, given the fusion of power between the Legislative and Executive branches of Government, the Westminster model ensures efficiency (swiftness) of decision making. This permits the Cabinet to not only conduct its legislative agenda with efficiency but also to conduct its domestic and foreign policy with the assurance that the parliamentary majority will support it against the Opposition. Additionally, the model of Government permits the easy identification of responsibility for success and failure of Government policy. There is therefore little difficulty in allocating blame or praise.

While the model has clear advantages, nonetheless it also has serious defects especially as it functions regionally. Foremost among these defects is the excessive partisanship or adversarial politics. Secondly, given the fusion of power and the small size of the parliament itself, the legislative branch of Government has not been able to effectively check Cabinet to ensure that the Executive branch does not engage in hasty policy making that is designed to achieve short-term popularity of their policy proposals. Consequently, while the ability of the system to lend itself to speedy decision making and to avoid the gridlock and deadlock that is evident under the Presidential political form is advantageous, nonetheless, given the extensive concentration of power and swiftness with which decisions can be reached, it is fraught with danger. Ultimately therefore “There is no security for due reflection, no opportunity for second thoughts. Errors may be irretrievable

By comparison, the Presidential or Washington political model which is built on a clear separation of power and a system of checks and balances that is absent in the Westminster model, negates many of the defects of the latter system. Foremost among these, is the model’s ability to ensure that there is prudence and consensus in decision making given the imperative for both the legislative and executive branches of Government to support any piece of legislation. However, the institutional requirement for consultation and participation in the policy making ensures prolonged debate, which contributes to gridlock, deadlock and filibustering. According to Giovanni Sartori, the American presidential system is characterised more than by any other single factor, by the division (separation) of power between president and congress. The essence of the American political system is the separation of the executive from parliamentary support, compared to the power sharing feature of parliamentary models, whereby the executive both stands on and falls without that support from parliament. Inevitably what has occurred as a result of the structure of Government in the United States is a system of divided Government. Sartori contends that, in the “last forty years, a trend of minority presidents, of presidents whose party did not have a majority in the houses’ has emerged”. This was a deliberate institutional device of the framers of the American constitution to prevent abuse and concentration of power that prevails under the parliamentary Westminster form.

Presidential systems such as the American prototype were therefore deliberately created to ensure safety, and not speed. Presidential Government also solves the problem of stability by guaranteeing that members of the executive and legislative branch serve a fixed term of years.

This lends itself to stability unlike the parliamentary system which is quite flexible given the no confidence motion and the constitutional power of the Prime Minister to dissolve the parliament.

However, a fixed term of office is a double edged sword as it can also contribute to the crisis of governability as the electorate has no constitutional means by which to replace a non functioning executive or legislative branch of Government. This can be compared to the Westminster parliamentary system that permits the parliament to remove the government which fails to maintain the confidence of the Legislature and in this way avoid a constitutional or governmental crisis.

Public Concerns.
One of the most consistent themes to emerge in the consultations of the Commission was the nature of the political system in the region. Specifically, Saint Lucians expressed strong concern about the seeming lack of a system of checks and balances, the nature and composition of the parliament, the overwhelming power of the Prime Minister, and the minimum time that parliamentary representatives devoted to constituency matters. The Commission considered all of these issues in arriving at its recommendations on reforming the parliament in Saint Lucia.

Insofar as the political system is concerned, while the Commission seriously considered the many submissions that the current bicameral form should be abolished and replaced with a unicameral system, the Commission was not sufficiently persuaded by the arguments advanced. However, it should be noted that the Commission entertained various submissions on the nature and composition of the two houses of parliament, ranging from fully elected chambers, to partially elected and partially nominated chambers. Many of the recommendations showed an overriding concern with the subordination of the Senate to the House of Assembly and the tendency of the Senate to rubber stamp the decisions of the Government. This, we accepted was related to the manner in which the Senate is appointed. Thus, we considered a submission that called for the appointment of Senators who were representatives of various interest groups in the Saint Lucian society. Specifically, the submission called for representatives to be appointed to represent the trade unions, the business community, the professionals, the churches, sporting bodies, and environmental interests and others. It was felt that constituency of interest should be required to appoint a representative from their ranks to sit on the Senate.

Mindful of the impact that such a reform would have on the functioning of the system, the Commission’s position was that the current bicameral form should be maintained. However, the Commission felt that in an effort to make the Senate a more effective institution, there should be an increase in the numbers without undermining the government’s majority. Specifically, the Commission was persuaded that an increase in the number of independent Senators was warranted. As an appointed body it was felt that the Senate should not frustrate the elected element in parliament. While therefore the proposed minimalist reforms would not affect the balance of power, more independent voices would be heard in the Senate. In this way the Commission reasoned that the original intent of the Senate would be realised.

In a strong dissenting view on the composition of the Senate, it was proposed that the Senate should comprise an equal number of persons appointed by the Head of State in his/her own deliberate judgement, the Prime Minister and the Minority Leader. Such a reformed Senate it was argued, would be more effective and provide a “sober, second thought” on the work done by the Lower House. Consequently, this would promote “greater adherence to the principles of good governance through accountability, transparency and responsibility.”

The Role of Elected Representatives
A vigorous debate ensued within the Commission on the question of the role of elected representatives in Parliament. Commissioners felt that while submissions’ recommending the establishment of an American type political system was not justifiable, nonetheless there was an urgent need to effect some form of separation of powers. This was especially critical given the fusion of power and the small size of the national parliament which made it near impossible to engage in any form of meaningful scrutiny of Government business. In evaluating the relative merit of the presidential system of Government, it was accepted that the appeal of the system partly resided in its ability to provide that critical scrutiny which was absent or minimal under the existing model. In the main, it was accepted that one of the failings of the current system appeared to be the absence of functioning Parliamentary Committees which is possible in larger sized parliaments.

In the view of the Commission, Parliamentary Committees have a critical role to play as the watchdog of the Executive. Consequently, the Commission reasoned that freeing Parliamentarians from their triple function as legislators, executives and constituency representatives and restricting them to a dual function of legislators and constituency representatives would present the opportunity for the committee system to be more effective.

After more than thirty years of independence, the society has been able to assess the performance of the Parliament. Whereas the Independence discussions sought to make minor alterations to the structure and functioning of the Parliament, the Commission has concluded that Saint Lucians would like to see a parliamentary system where there is more scrutiny of public affairs and less dominance of a party line on all aspects of the functioning of Parliament and so on.

The debates about reforming the Parliament of Saint Lucia have involved the expression of a desire to give the Parliament more powers of scrutiny over the Executive branch of Government. In doing this, it became apparent that there was strong influence from the United States Constitution in respect of seeking to have ministerial appointments vetted by the Senate, the establishment of fixed dates for elections, seeking to have Ministers who were appointed from among the ranks of the Senators resign their senatorial positions and serve from outside the Parliament, et cetera.

Essentially, the strong influence of the Washington model in the reform of the Parliament would ultimately lead to the creation of a hybrid between the Westminster and Washington models as opposed to the retention of the Westminster-style democracy that has existed.

The major challenge to be faced here was how to create a greater separation of powers between the Legislature and the Executive in such a way as to find a mid-point between the parliamentary system that has existed in Saint Lucia since independence and the presidential system which is best represented by the Washington model.

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