November 13, 2009
NDP says No to enlarged Parliament

by Dr. Godwin Friday 13.NOV.09

One of the proposed constitutional changes to be voted on in the November 25 referendum is the provision to increase the size of Parliament from 21 members (i.e. 15 Representatives and six Senators) to 27 members. The governing Unity Labour Party wants to increase the size of Parliament to 27 members. We in the Opposition New Democratic Party want our Parliament to stay at its present size of 21 members. We believe that our Parliament is big enough as it is and that with proper leadership it can render effective representation to our people.{{more}}

Section 67 of the Constitution Bill 2009 provides that “[t]here shall be a National Assembly of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines” consisting of 27 members of which 17 shall be Representatives and 10 Senators. No good reason has been given for the proposed increase. Certainly, our population has not grown much over the past 20 years, so as to require more parliamentarians to represent the people.

The Government’s spokespersons have said that the proposed increase would bring us more in line with other OECS countries, which have Parliaments that are absolutely or proportionately larger than ours. But that can hardly be a justification for increasing the size of our Parliament. What is good for the goose may not, in this case, be good for the gander. We must not simply copy other countries for copying sake. Follow fashion, to use the colloquial expression, by itself is rarely a good thing. Rather, we must ensure that what we do is right for St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The “Yes vote” campaigners have also argued that the proposed increase in the size of Parliament is necessary to give effect to the separation of the legislative arm of Government from the executive arm. This they say would come about because the number of parliamentarians in the enlarged parliament who would not be in the executive arm of Government (i.e. the Cabinet) would outnumber those in the executive arm and, so, would be able to outvote the executive in any measure brought to Parliament that the majority of members do not like. This is rubbish. It is purely theoretical. The idea that, in our small legislature, members of the governing party would vote against their own party members in the Cabinet is simply unrealistic.

The truth is that any member of the governing party who, at any particular time, has not won a place in the Cabinet would hope to become a member of Cabinet during the life of the administration. Hence, he would invariably vote along party lines in the expectation that he would one day be rewarded with a Cabinet appointment or some other exalted position. So, in reality the legislature and the executive would continue to operate in tandem, very much like they do under the present Constitution.

Further, it is contradictory for the “Yes vote” advocates to argue for true separation of the legislative and executive arms of Government on the one hand and, on the other, threaten members of Parliament with the loss of their seat if they fail to support their respective parties in the Parliament. I am referring here to the proposed constitutional amendment that is intended to end so-called “floor crossing” by members of Parliament. By virtue of section 70 of the proposed Constitution, any representative who “no longer supports” his or her party in Parliament can be stripped of his or her seat should the leader of the party choose to have the seat declared vacant.

Very few, if any, members of Parliament would risk losing their seats by opposing their party in the House. With this proverbial sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of members of Parliament, the notion that an enlarged body would lead to true separation of the legislative and executive arms of Government is reduced to mere theory, without any practical application in our political context. The separation-of-powers argument proffered in support of the proposed increase of the size of our Parliament to 27 members is, therefore, not valid.

Increasing the size of Parliament at this time is not only unnecessary, it is wasteful. It would incur additional costs for the pay and benefits of six more unnecessary parliamentarians. Prime Minister Gonsalves and others on the “Yes vote” side of the referendum campaign have countered by saying the cost for the additional six parliamentarians would not be much, as the proposal does not lead to the creation of more ministries; it only adds more members of Parliament. They have argued that the proposed new Constitution would limit the size of Cabinet to 13 persons, including the Prime Minister, and that this would offset the additional cost of the six added parliamentarians. This is hardly a selling point for the proposal, as presently we have only 12 ministers and the Prime Minister.

So, there will be no savings to be had by putting in the Constitution what already exists in practice. In other words, the proposal to limit the size of Cabinet to 13 ministers, including the Prime Minister, adds nothing new. It merely recognises in law what is already common practice in our country. Moreover, this practice will likely endure for the foreseeable future, as our slow population growth means that there is little or no basis for adding more representatives in Parliament.

So, please don’t be misled by the bogus arguments of the “Yes vote” proponents. They cannot justify an increase in the size of Parliament to 27 members and its attendant costs at a time like this, when there are so many urgent and real needs to be met in our country. What we need in our country now is better government; not more backbenchers in Parliament. We in the NDP believe that effective government can be achieved with the current 21 member legislature. If the ULP administration does not know how to do it, then it is not just time for a constitutional referendum; it is time for general elections!

Dr. Godwin Friday is the Member for the Northern Grenadines and Vice-President of the New Democratic Party.