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R&R on Senate benches

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Traditionally, when we use the abbreviation R&R, we refer to rest and recreation. There is a new political twist to this abbreviation, following the disclosure by Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves that changes which he is making in regard to the composition of government senators in the House of Assembly are part of a new R&R, renew and refresh.{{more}}

Three of the four government senators in the House, Foreign Minister Douglas Slater, parliamentary secretary Elvis Charles and Deputy Speaker David Browne, are to be replaced by the end of this month, according to a statement by the PM in Parliament last week. This announcement has set off a wave of speculation in the society, with a great deal of whispering about the reasons for the changes and the names of their replacements, not yet disclosed by Dr Gonsalves.

Historically, the position of senator in the House, and, before Independence, that of nominated member, has been used by both Government and Opposition alike for two fundamental purposes. Senators have been appointed either as reward for loyal political support, or to try and promote persons considered by the political parties in Parliament as political prospects, potential candidates for the next general election. While this is understandable, it contributes to the further narrowing of the political space and restricts the breadth of views coming from the senators.

During the constitutional review process of 2003/9, the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) attempted to address this matter of senatorial representation. In so doing, it engaged in intensive debate and discussion, internally as well as in the public domain, aimed at finding an appropriate mechanism to break the old political mould. Its ideas were set out comprehensively in its Final Report to the House of Assembly (September 2006). Basically, it involved not just selection of senators from the parliamentary parties, but broadening the scope to include civil society representation.

This formula, however, did not find favour with the Members of Parliament, on either side of the House, and was rebuffed with crude remarks of persons wanting to enter Parliament “through the backdoor,” being typical of the political contempt with which such ground-breaking views were met. We are still stuck with the old system.

On reflection, we have had an ever-expanding list of senators since Independence. Unfortunately, not many of them have distinguished themselves by performance, or enhanced the quality of debate in Parliament. Many have been found wanting by the same people who appointed them in the first place, or have fallen out of political favour. Where expectations of political attractiveness were not realised, those senators were quietly dropped, or in the case of government senators, alternative jobs found for them. Both Government and Opposition have operated in this manner.

In the present reconfiguration, Dr Douglas Slater is at last leaving the political frontline to take up a senior appointment with CARICOM. This appointment says much for his significant regional contribution in the health sector. He has my best wishes for success in his new venture. Dr Slater was once highly considered by PM Gonsalves as a possible successor, even being described as a “favourite son” of the Prime Minister.

By a twist of fate, his job as foreign minister is expected to be taken by a biological son of the Prime Minister, Camillo Gonsalves, currently winding up his stint as this country’s permanent representative to the United Nations. Camillo has performed outstandingly in that portfolio and has been one of the more accomplished ambassadors from the Caribbean at the UN. There is no reason to believe that he will not continue in that trend.

Unfortunately, Camillo is being considered by many persons, not on merit, but as someone whom, at least in the opinion of some on the opposition benches, the Prime Minister is foisting on us. For better or worse, he must be judged on his own abilities, achievements or failures, not denigrated because he happens to be the son of the Prime Minister. He is as entitled to participate in the political process as any other citizen. For argument’s sake, what if the daughter of the Leader of the Opposition were to take an active part in the affairs of her father’s party, and even to seek a post? Should she be denied because her father is leader, or should she be considered on merit? Let us lift ourselves out of such pettiness and not either favour or discriminate against young people on the basis of parentage.

The other two senators exiting are David Browne, ironically Slater’s succesor as ULP contender for the South Leeward

costituency, and Elvis Charles. The PM has dis–closed that Browne is to pursue studies, but has not indicated what will become of Charles. There has been much talk though that he is to be appointed manager of the Housing and Land Development Corporation.

In conclusion, now that the PM has spoken of the need to “renew and refresh”, it is left to be seen how he and the ULP will handle this in respect to the number of long-serving ministers and parliamentary representatives.

Renwick Rose is a community activist

and social com-mentator.

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