Dr Winford James

A worthless house

January 26, 2003
by Dr Winford James

When Rennie Dumas, Minister of Public Utilities and Environment, failed to answer UNC senator Wade Mark's questions on WASA in the senate last Tuesday, he and his government looked like incompetent fools. But that is hardly the most important observation we could make on the debacle. Indeed, the observation is a supremely trivial one, for our politicians routinely make fools of themselves. Did Manning not the other day call gang leaders community leaders and confer respectability on them by meeting privately with them in misguided hopes of stemming the tide of senseless murders in a few corners of the land? And did Panday not yesterday (and today) spread the senseless rake that the government has links with Al Queda?

Nor is the UNC sight of abuse in Dumas' failure an important point either, for our governments, in a situation of prime ministerial dictatorship and other undemocratic structures, are routinely abusive. And in any case, who can forget the rampant abuses of the UNC years, a particularly shameless one being the attempt to have a plethora of electoral losers appointed as ministers, leading President Robinson to stall on the appointments and cry 'Creeping dictatorship!'?

No, the most important observation to be made is that the senate is a worthless house. And you should read 'worthless' as both English 'worthless' and Creole 'wotlis'.

Let's see how the senate is worthless.

Dumas had some 35 days to provide answers to Mark's WASA-focused questions about the number of consultants employed, the size of expenditure on a welcome party for CEO Grimes, and the emoluments paid to senior management. He turns up at the senate session on Tuesday without a complete answer, but with one that needed 'verification'. Both the opposition and the independents are incensed that he is not prepared to provide the answer and they combine their votes to drag it out of him. They have a maximum of 15 votes - 6 from the opposition and 9 from the independents - but the PNM have 16 - 15 plus one from the senate president, Linda Baboolal, if she chooses to cast it. With the president's vote not cast, the vote is tied at 15-15. What to do? Baboolal breaks the deadlock by predictably voting with the government.


The law gives the government an automatic majority in the senate. Which means that, for matters requiring a simple majority, once all the government senators turn up, the government will always have its way even if the opposition and the independents team up against it. Which means that the government can do whatever it wants (like refusing to answer a question submitted 35 days earlier) without fear of being outvoted. How can the senate effectively function as a review body if the government has a ready-made majority?

In the sense of a body where decisions are taken on the principle of individual-based (rather than bloc-based) voting and free conscience, the senate is quite clearly not a democratic institution. Rather, it is structurally an instrument of the executive.

Baboolal should have voted against the government's motion to have Dumas' answer postponed - for at least three reasons. One, as president she would have sent the much-needed signal that the nation's business was being efficiently conducted in the senate; questions had been posted, two periods of time had been given for the answers, and the house could not be made to facilely wait any longer. Two, because the government had moved the motion and she was a government senator, her negative would have come across as nobler and fairer, especially as the independents (who are statutorily independent) were aroused enough to vote against it. Three, both the position of senate president and that of acting state president (which from time to time she will have to fill) require the exercise of politically non-partisan judgment, not the automatic salvation of the government.

But worthless law and a long tradition of executive-favouring senate presidents constrained the way she did vote. In fact, in allowing a (senior) member of the ruling party to become senate president, the law was being pro-ruling party rather than pro-nation.

Some people will say that if Dumas did not have a full answer, then it would have been pointless to have him answer. So that all Baboolal was doing was to avoid a futile situation. I disagree, on at least two grounds. The first is that the situation would not have been futile as Dumas had an answer, only that it was unverified, whatever that means. And the second is that, even though he had not had the chance to verify his answer, he could have given a preliminary answer that was explicitly conditioned on verification and, subsequent to the inevitable political flak, follow up at a later date. After all, politics is substantially perception and risk-taking and in the interest of procedural efficiency, he should have taken the risk engendered by his own ministerial lapse in not getting the information in a timely manner in the first place.

He preferred risking the displeasure of the independents (opposition displeasure is ritualistically automatic!), but he could do so with impunity in a wotlis house.

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