Whom Do The “Independent” Senators Represent? Not the People!

Given Anthony Vieira’s motion against the Opposition UNC Senators, it gives us an opportunity to look again at the role of the so-called Independent Senators.

Whom do they represent? How are they chosen? What are their roles? Why are there nine so-called Independent Senators and only six Opposition Senators? How is this rational, democratic or fair?

What right does the conflicted Vieira have to threaten disciplinary action against the Opposition?

No such thing as “Independent Senators”

Let us first acknowledge that constitutionally, there is no position called an “Independent Senator”. 

They are Senators appointed by the President in his or her own discretion “from outstanding persons from economic or social or community organisations and other major fields of endeavour” (Section 40(2)(c) of the Constitution of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago).

This is of itself of some concern. What makes Paul Richards or Anthony Viera “outstanding”, for example? What constitutes “other major fields of endeavour”?

What makes such persons “Independent”?

Crossed the Line

One of the aspects that is supposed to make these persons “independent” is that they are supposed to act outside of partisan politics. They are certainly not supposed to be taking any particular side. They are not even supposed to caucus and vote together as a group. They are supposed to be nine separate individuals.

Anthony Vieira and Paul Richards have broken this tradition by openly and aggressively criticising the Opposition in the press — while not raising any Standing Orders or objections during the relevant sitting. They crossed the line by definitely and improperly descending into the political arena.

In addition, Senator Vieira’s motion criticises ALL — and ONLY — Opposition Senators en masse, without specifying any laws or Standing Orders that have been breached. This should be thrown out immediately.

Multiple Conflicts of Interest

Making matters worse, there are serious conflicts of interests with these Senators in this issue. Firstly, they are all appointed by the President — and any can be removed by her at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all. These Senators are asked to vote on whether to have a tribunal appointed to investigate the President, and their votes are crucial. Anthony Vieira does not see a conflict there. 

In addition, Vieira also does not see Charisse Seepersad as having a conflict of interest. Charisse is the sister of Bliss Seepersad. Both sisters were appointed by the President to their positions. And Bliss Seepersad was also a previous PNM board appointee. Charisse was asked to vote on whether to appoint a Tribunal that might find both the President and her sister guilty of misbehaviour. But Anthony Vieira sees no conflict there.

The absurdity does not stop there. Anthony Vieira himself is conflicted. Vieira is Chairman of the Standing Negotiating Committee on Air Services Agreements (SNCASA), appointed by the PNM Cabinet. 

These persons appear to be as far as can be from any common sense understanding of the term “independent”.

Why Do We Have So-Called “Independent” Senators in the First Place? 

MP Barry Padarath rightly asked the Speaker of the House, “Who voted for you?” We ask the same questions of these Senators.

Why are they appointed? Besides themselves, whom do they represent? Whom do Senators Vieira and Richards represent? Do they represent the President, themselves, their conscience? By their actions, it is certainly not the people, and certainly not the Constitution.

Once is entitled to ask, who are these people, and what gives them this authority and platform? And why are there nine of them, but only six Opposition Senators? How is that fair?

This issue goes beyond these two particular senators. They represent a class.

Today’s so-called Independent Senators are the descendants of the Nominated Unofficials in the old Crown Colony system that we used to have. 

In that old system, the colonial Governor (appointed by the King or Queen) used to nominate “reputable” persons from the Colony to sit in the Legislative Council as Nominated Unofficials, generally the “elite”. There were more of them than elected members (Elected Unofficials), to ensure that the Governor would always get his way. They could always outvote the elected members (Elected Unofficials). And if they voted out of line, they could always be removed.

This was in contrast to the Officials, who worked for the British Imperial Government in various Government departments, and were often foreigners moving from colony to colony. These Officials had a guaranteed majority, just like the Government has a guaranteed majority in the Senate today, ever since Eric Williams introduced it in 1961, always with 16 out of 31 members.  

So in the Crown Colony system, the Officials outnumbered the Unofficials by one. Among the Unofficials, the Nominated Unofficials outnumbered the Elected Unofficials by several. This ensured that the Elected Unofficials could not outvote the Governor’s men, Officials or Unofficials.

None of them had security of tenure. This is just like our Senate today, and unlike other Senates of the world.

Why do the so-called “Independent” Senators behave the way they do?

In the Crown Colony system, the nominated unofficials were the local elite, expected to co-operate with the Crown in its general policy, and not oppose the Crown on any important question without strong and substantial reasons. This is exactly like the Independent Senators.

The great CLR James criticised them in 1932 as he agitated for self-government. It is still relevant today:

“As the King’s representative, he [the Governor] takes precedence of all persons in the colony. He is the leader of society and invitations to Government House, as the official residence is styled, are cherished privileges. Subject to the complications introduced by distinctions of colour in a mixed society like that of Trinidad, standards of social prominence are set by the degree of association with the Governor and his family and official entourage. All classes regard him with respect and the less privileged especially see in him a being to whom nothing is impossible and petition his aid in issues of all kinds, a tendency reinforced in Trinidad by the long tradition of crown colony rule with the large powers which it confers on the governor.”

Just like the cocktail circuit today, during colonialism, the nominated unofficials wished to be close to the Governor and get invited to society events and Government House (now President’s House).

One commentator has written: “The whole concept of Independent Senators is a farce designed to put upper class eat-a-foodies in the Parliament to support the ruling party. 

The notion of “Independent Senators” has bred this idea that a portion of the population looks down on the others- calling them tribal and base. 

We have in essence invented our own aristocracy, where these little Barons and Baronesses are hand-picked and now want to laud it over the rest of us. 

Really now, the President can pick anyone without scrutiny or minimum qualifications, and we must presume they are independent. 

Relative unknowns are elevated and given the right to pontificate on Divali Nagar and to tell us what is “respectable” because they are somehow above the common man. 

These pseudo-aristocrats are given space in the media that wants to emulate them – to say Parliament became a fishmarket. 

They never say anything when the Prime Minister goes on political platforms and cusses those who oppose him. 

Only Judges are presumed to be independent. 

This pseudo-aristocracy has no right to judge anyone.”

Voting record of the Independent Senators, always in favour of the Government, against the Opposition

The Hon. Kamla Persad-Bissesar noted in her Virtual Report speech of 8 November 2021 the voting record of the so-called “Independent” Senators, and demonstrated that they were not independent at all.

“If we go further and examine the voting record of the so-called Independent Senators in our 12th Parliament clearly shows that they view themselves as nothing more than Rowley’s rubber stamp.

In the 12 th Parliament:

  • Out of 16 occasions, Paul Richards has always voted with the Government – 16 times
  • Out of 16 occasions – Vieira has voted with the PNM 15 times
  • Out of 16 occasions, Senator Charisse Seepersad has voted with the PNM 15 times
  • Out of 16 occasions, Senator Varma Deyalsingh has voted with the PNM 14 times
  • Out of 16 occasions, Senator Hazel Thompson has voted with the PNM 14 times
  • Out of 16 occasions, Senator Amrita Denonarine has voted with the PNM 13 times

These PNM puppets voted to gut the Procurement legislation. They voted in favour of the property tax. They voted to preserve Faris’s flawed COP selection order and parts of it was eventually struck down by the court.

This is in contrast to Opposition Motions where the so-called Independents have not supported them, as they have done with the Government.

Significantly, this includes them voting down the motion moved by Senator Wade Mark on the Annulment of the Commissioner of Police and Deputy Commissioner of Police (Selection Process) Order, 2021, when we saw Faris Al-Rawi introduce the unconstitutional law on our Books.

Notably, in that debate every single so-called Independent Senator resoundingly voted against the Opposition’s motion to annul the Order.

Parts of this Order, you will recall, were eventually struck down by the Court, proving the Opposition was right in its objection.

So, where were the Independent Senators then when the Constitution and independent offices such as the Police Commissioner (selection process) needed them to stand up and defend?

They were voting in line with the PNM.”

The False Argument of “Good Behaviour”

This background shows that Vieira and Richards were really following an old colonial tradition when they criticised the behaviour of the Opposition. These two unelected senators had the impertinence  to accuse the elected Opposition of being disrespectful and bringing the entire Parliament into disrepute. 

These out of touch, self-interested Senators — like their class — apparently think democracy is a tea party or a march past.

They certainly have no idea how MPs in the “Mother of Parliaments” in the UK behave when the Executive abuses its authority, or is perceived to abuse its authority. It is entirely within Parliamentary tradition for the MPs to be loudly passionate in such situations. This is historically how the legislature keeps the executive in check in the Westminster model. It is a well-worn tradition that needs to be followed much more in Trinidad and Tobago, not less.

Instead, these so-called Independent Senators want to play the role of the good colonials in dress-up. 

Defending democracy has always been a passionate, contentious, abrasive affair. The behaviour of Opposition Senators was nothing compared to parliaments around the world. Yet, Vieira and Richards would have preferred the Opposition to be polite while the rights and freedoms of the citizens were being trampled upon and taken away with impunity. This is what they call “good behaviour” that our children would be proud of.

The UNC will never politely and quietly allow the PNM to despoil and destroy our democracy.

The real bad behaviour in Parliament did not come from the UNC. It came from the Speaker, the Government, and the Independent Senators, who were covering up misbehaviour in public office and criticising the Opposition who has been exposing it. Scratch beneath the surface of this so-called elite and you see the real bad behaviour.

Efforts to get rid of nominated elites from the process of Government

Interestingly, the Old Crown Colony system almost completely disappeared by 1955, on our way to independence. The elected members were in a majority, the nominated members were a minority of the Legislative Council. In fact, by 1955 (before the PNM existed), the legislature also had real power over the Executive (which we now call the Cabinet). This was in fact more progressive than what we have today.

However, in 1961 Eric Williams changed this and brought back the old colonial system. He introduced a Senate of powerful appointed members. He fixed the Government majorities just like in the old Crown Colony system. Just like the old colonial British, he guaranteed that the Government would have a majority in the Senate. Also, he made sure that matter how many seats the Opposition won, they would only have six seats, and so could never prevent a special majority. Just like the old Crown Colony system, Eric Williams made sure there were nine so-called “Independent” Senators, just like the Nominated Unofficials.

The Opposition DLP in 1961 were against Williams’s constitution which introduced the so-called “Independent” Senators. However, they could not prevent Williams from introducing it then, nor at Independence in 1962.

Later, in 1974 there was the famous Wooding Commission which proposed a radical constitution for a new Republic. One of their recommendations was to abolish Independent Senators and have all members elected, Williams, however, completely rejected that.

The Tapia House Movement, led by the late Lloyd Best, proposed a “Macco Senate” of a hundred or more Senators appointed by Civil Society groups themselves to oversee the Executive. Every group could nominate their own representative to participate in law-making and debate, subject to certain requirements. This would abolish the idea of elite appointments altogether. Eric Williams rejected that as well.

We need to seriously review the role and the very existence of the so-called “Independent” Senators. Should we have them at all? Are they needed? If they are needed, should they be selected or elected differently?

That is a matter of Constitutional Reform, which the UNC significantly undertook both times in government, and will continue when we return to office again.

– Dr. Kirk Meighoo