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Tuesday 21 May 2019
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Resurrecting the macco Senate

I couldn’t post sentimental tourist pictures when Easter-week flames leapt heavenward from a landmark European cathedral begun in the twelfth century, and felled its iconic spire. So I just may not be well-travelled enough to know, though I continue to wonder if in any other place in the world besides TT Lent is a market.

Anyone above a certain age recalls Ash Wednesday’s sharp divide between Carnival and Lent, when calypso on the radio or in public was, if not forbidden, certainly eyebrow-raising. Christianity has long ceased to hold such sway over Carnival public policy – the way it still yearns to overstate sexuality policy. As high-church Christians shrink as a share of the population, the dominance of Christian practice over national life has perhaps adjusted to something more proportionate for a multi-religious country.

Stubbornly, though, Lent here persists as a seasonal driver of the consumer market, when leading fast-food chains roll out advertising for Lenten menus.

I’m not in church this Easter morning. I’m not a churchgoer. Well, I haven’t yet become one again; these things tend to change as folks hit my age. I’m not sure Hanover Methodist Church ever saw my nappies again after my baptism there, but I got sent perhaps as often as taken to the Anglican church growing up.

The one thing I’d most want to go back for is the Palm Sunday procession. It’s not just the theatrical nostalgia and take-home palm crosses. It’s one particular, unusual early 19th-century hymn, Ride on, Ride on in Majesty, that haunts me.

Its repeated line about “lowly pomp” makes me think hardest about Jesus’s procession into Jerusalem, the parody in its optics, the complicated message in the Easter story about populism, authority and politics, and my own struggle with how the institutionalised church has turned Jesus’s message of mutual love and forgiveness into one of triumphalism.

The institution where I spend more and more time, and more time than most others, is the Parliament. Over the past few weeks, a group of advocates from nonprofits have been focused on the Senate, as a bill that radically alters our work passed through it. It made me think a lot about how the Senate currently works. Government appoints 16 of 31 members, one of whom is elected to preside; the Opposition has six seats; and the President acting alone picks nine “Independent” senators.

Easter ought to be a time for us all to reflect hard about authority.

More authority seems the instinctual solution with which we want to respond to every problem in this country. We clamour for constitutional reform to provide us with an executive president. But most critiques of the Westminster governance model we’ve inherited point to its over-concentration of power.

Our last constitutional reform exercise generated a fascinating proposal for the Senate that got relatively little attention. A proportionally-elected Senate in which the Prime Minister (leader of the party/coalition with the majority of votes) and other government ministers sat and (by definition) held the majority would have its legislative power checked by a House of Representatives elected (first-past-the-post) exclusively to represent geographic constituencies.

Such fundamental constitutional reform in the current tribal climate seems politically unlikely. But I’ve become quite enamoured of the applicability of some older visions for the Senate to our current arrangements.

Lloyd Best and the Tapia Movement imagined a “macco Senate,” a large body of varied civil society interests, as a companion chamber to a politically elected House, and a way for greater accountability in policymaking. It would be large (and perhaps unwieldy), as many as 100 members representing at least 12 interests – cultural leaders, the press, trade unions, the university, craft associations, youth, business management, women, agricultural societies, professional associations, religious leaders and village councils – appointed (and replaced) by those organisations. It would be a patchwork that had “an eye on race, sex and class.” It would play the oversight role committees do in the current structure, and also have the power to make non-political appointments to various institutions now vested in the President. It would debate legislation in advance of the House.

Selwyn Ryan dismisses this 40-year-old idea as a “widely derided” formula that would open the door dangerously to “political adventurism, demagoguery or worse.” But I’ve often wondered if our current Independent Senators, who operate independently of each other, receive no direction from the President, and are literally accountable to no one, don’t pose the same danger. Macco Senators would at least represent a clear constituency.

Ryan sees political parties as a critical ground for mobilising the thinking elites young states like ours need. Many of our smartest thought leaders, though, are in the non-profit sector, where neoliberal thinking says “social” movement organisations should not participate in partisan politics.

How do we ensure their meaningful role in governance if not in the Senate? Let’s start a conversation.

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