Not the potshots, Trevor
Two Fridays ago, noted historian Trevor Marshall articulated yet another controversial thesis which challenged the presence of one racial minority in our Parliament. In fairness to him, he has said his remarks were taken out of context, since he intended to present a thesis that was more generalised.
If one were to take his defence at face value, his comments are still problematic because he identified “white” senators and associated them with vested interests in Barbados. This is unfortunate since the issue of representation is an important one and has frequently been spoken of by me.
The simple fact is that our Senate has evolved from the British House of Lords which is a body that sought to accommodate persons whose opinions were important by virtue of interest they represented.
The House of Lords and the Senate therefore are both elitist institutions which run counter to the fundamental philosophy of a representative Parliament.
To place a person who is not elected in Parliament by way of the Senate, or House of Lords, is essentially akin to stating that such an individual, or the interest this person represents, is so important that one cannot “risk” excluding them by subjecting them to an elective process that they could lose.
The offending section of the Constitution of Barbados states that “seven Senators shall be appointed by the Governor General, acting in his discretion, by instrument under the Public Seal, to represent religious, economic or social interests or such other interests as the Governor General considers ought to be represented”. This section seems particularly innocuous and to some might even seem progressive since we give the Governor General the ability to ensure that the Senate reflects a diversity of opinion.
In reality, the facility has done nothing more than to “prop up” the status quo since our governors general have consistently interpreted these interests in a narrow way and therefore presented similar types of individuals on each occasion. As such, one is left to believe that the legitimate religious interest in Barbados is always reflected in the Anglican, Catholic or Methodist tradition, while Rastafarians, Muslims and Hindus do not represent legitimate religions in the context of Barbados. Certainly no person from the “established” religions here would object to this type of discrimination.
I am not partial to any religious orientation, and I can see why the non-traditional religious movements would take offence as this treatment. The issue should not, however, be defined in terms of Anglicanism versus Islam, but instead we need to ask what is the benefit of guaranteeing any religion here a place in our representative Parliament, especially as our Constitution specifically identifies us as a secular state.
A similar argument can be used in respect of the other types of interest that the Governor General is free to identify, such as the “economic and social interest” which has facilitated influential business persons and other “interesting” senators being appointed over the years.
One can agree that there is a clear consistency regarding the “types” that appear in the Senate and the types that don’t, and one can also agree that no Governor General has ever used his unquestioned power to augment Parliament with the “types” of persons who need representation most.
As much as this is the case, it is most unwise to construct arguments around the individuals who are “fortunate” enough to be chosen, instead of the fundamentally flawed system that allows for a “back-door” appointment to the Senate.
Sadly, parliamentary reform has not been seriously attempted in Barbados since 1966. However, our most recent attempt at reform did present one outstanding proposal that would have addressed this issue. This was one of the minority opinions presented in the Forde Report by former National Democratic Party Senator Wendell McClean.
These proposals would see a Senate emerge which is truly representative and to which parties gaining membership in the Lower House would nominate representatives proportionally.
This seems to be an entirely more sensible approach and one would hope that Mr Marshall would turn his enormous intellect towards this type of “project” instead of taking “pot shots” at minority racial groups.
• Peter W. Wickham ([email protected]) is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).