Tomorrow, Belize will see history unfold as the 13th Senator will be elected for the first time, representing non-governmental organizations. The relevance of having a 13th Senator added to a group of legislators that many have termed as a rubber stamp on Bills and Motions brought from the House of Representatives. Past PUP Senator spoke on the issue saying that the downfall as it is currently in Belize is that the voters and agencies who these officials represent are not being held accountable.
“You know we can’t have it both ways, we cannot both say that the Senate is a rubber stamp and a waste of time and then turn around and say having a 13th Senator will create gridlock. Those two statements are inherently incompatible, it’s either one or the other or possibly neither. The Senate may be a largely symbolic but it is a part of architecture of a democracy to act as a measured check and balance on this system. You only have to look at the senate powers. The issue comes in that senators by and large still have to serve a constituency. I always said you know the day I cannot represent what it is that the Leader of the Opposition wants me to represent I will go and tender my resignation, seriously; because that is who appointed you, that is the constituency that you serve. It is no different for the business senator, it is no difference for the senator from the churches and it is no different for the senator for the unions so when people start talking about constituencies this is what it is. The lower chamber, the House each have their individual constituencies supposedly for whom they are answerable. Part of the breakdown comes in that a lot of times those constituencies don’t do an effective job of holding their representative liable. Let me give you an instance in which they do. San Pedro for instance, San Pedro and Caye Caulker those people are serious when they are going to have a meeting and tell their representative, ‘listen to me we are having a meeting you better show up and you need to listen to what we have to say’; that was live on Facebook as they say; addressing of their representative and their representative got the message and did what that representative felt was in the interest of the constituency that is how it’s supposed to work.”
Shoman went on to note that Belizeans are lacking the interest to follow and note the differences made in the Senate.
“The reason why we put civil society senators in the senate if we remember is that there was an exercise in political reform that occurred around I think 2000 or thereabout and several changes were recommended including having a civil society senators, this was something new for us and it was thought look why are you only going to have representatives of the same political parties that are represented in parliament, let’s put a body of people in there whose opinions we can have on legislation, on the direction that the country is taking and let those people’s voices be heard. The simple fact that as a society we are not listening to those voices doesn’t mean that those voices aren’t saying things that are critical and important because I would challenge anybody to look at the last seven years and see, and even before that to see how civil society senators have been taking up their responsibilities and speaking out on legislation. The fact that legislation doesn’t always go back to change doesn’t take away from the fact that those people are speaking out on the legislation and saying “look certain things here are wrong.” I will never forget we’ve managed to send back at least two or three bills to make changes because we simply got into the legislation and said ‘look my job isn’t’ to obstruct the majority from doing what it is that they need to do, my job is to make sure that the laws that we are passing are the best laws that we can possibly get for the country so for instance there were a couple of them where the language was simply garbled, it was not making sense and the impact that it would have had would have been disastrous to Belizeans and we got it sent back and we got it amended, that is supposed to be the job. If you are only ever going to be rabidly partisan you are going to get nowhere.”
The idea of the 13th Senator came out under the Barrow administration with the idea of not having the Government rule merely by majority. Shoman went further by noting that the Senate itself is not exercising its full powers as they relate to checks and balances. She also added to the participation of the non-governmental agencies on this historic election.
“Lets not forget the 13th senator is actually an initiative of the Prime Minister himself, this was the first constitutional amendment undertaken under his administration which was the sixth constitutional amendment. The 5th constitutional amendment added the civil society senators. The 6th went a step forward and said okay we want to make sure that government doesn’t simply dominate the senate because remember the senate can’t hold back money bills and it can only delay bills for a certain amount of time so therefore it is a check and balance only. It is moral suasion so if you have the 13th senator the thinking of the Prime Minister at the time was to provide for a bigger group of people to have a say in our democracy and also to ensure that government would simply by their numbers dominate the discussion. The thinking was if you can’t win over at least one or two civil society senators to what you want to do then maybe you are not going along the right track. You have to rethink that thing again and make adjustments. For example this thing questioning people in the senate that is not only meant when there is wrongdoing it should be meant to investigate any issue in which you think there are any issues that have to be explored publicly. It should be routine. It’s the same kind of power that the United States senate has to hold inquires, same kind of power and they do it as a matter of routine. This really should be a matter of routine for us and there should not be an issue about how any house or senate meeting is broadcast that should be done at the government’s expense as a matter of fact…”
“Does the senate have the power to call these investigations any time they want?”
“Absolutely. That is important but you can’t by the same token acknowledge that you are going to open the senate to wider participation and then spend six years blocking it on the basis that it will cause you headache and gridlock. Those are two inherently incompatible positions to take and unfortunately this is what occurred. Here is the deal democracy belongs to those who show up. If you know you are an NGO you had six years to get yourself ready to be in a position so that you become an elector so I’m not going to be terribly sympathetic to those that didn’t. If I want to vote I have to find my behind to a registering office go and sign up and take the pictures and wait for my ID and all of that and get myself of the road. You remember there was a re registration exercise in 1997 all of us had to go and register ourselves all over again. There are rules for NGOs there is an NGO act and you have to bring yourself within the four corners of the act before you can be considered an elector that there are only 28 should serve as wake up call to the rest, the 100 plus that there are to say that they do not wish to be left out of the participation next time that I am going to do everything I can to bring myself within the four corners of that and let me say something else it is not every organization that is non governmental in Belize that is an NGO or a registered NGO because a great many of them have never bothered to register under the act either and then there are those that are not in good standing so there is work for everybody to be done.”
The current Senate make-up constitutes of representatives from the Government of Belize, Unions and civil society as well the Churches and the main opposition party.