THE ROLE of the independent senator in our political system has shifted and there is no stronger indication of this than President Christine Kangaloo’s appointment on Monday of four new faces in the Senate line-up.
The long-standing view has been that independents are expected to be voices of reason, above the fray of partisanship. Under the Constitution, such independents are explicitly meant to be chosen from the country’s pool of outstanding individuals from all walks of life.
These individuals have, over decades of parliamentary tradition, been looked up to as serving a higher legislative role. There is a reason why the monikers “Upper House” and “Lower House” have emerged as shorthand ways to distinguish the Senate and the House of Representatives respectively.
However, two major changes have occurred which have made the role of independents more nuanced than ever.
While the Constitution is clear that the terms of all senators come to an end with each dissolution of Parliament, the position in relation to the changes expected whenever a new president assumes office is less settled. Some have held on to the view that independents remain in office for parliamentary terms notwithstanding who is the President.
Others, however, have, rightly in our view, pointed to the need for any new officeholder to have a free hand in the selection of independents, especially because these nine individuals are meant to serve at the President’s sole discretion. Ms Kangaloo’s move follows that of at least one of her predecessors who also adjusted the line-up upon assumption of office.
While independents are not meant to toe the line of any president, the President is elected by the Electoral College whose composition is a direct reflection of democratic power in action. When a new president is chosen, it is good practice for a shift to occur, just as state boards also formally clear the way for new appointments by Cabinet.
This points to another change: there is growing awareness that independents are not directly elected by the people but nonetheless exercise substantial powers, especially when it comes to super majority legislation. With politics increasingly polarised, independents are more important than ever and there is greater pressure on them to be open to wider and wider viewpoints.
Meanwhile, the President’s call for MPs to be respected acknowledges the realities of the heated political fray.
But what pertains in our Red House, while often leaving room for improvement, pales when compared to the shocking brawls of legislatures around the world.
And given the emergence of youthful faces in recent years, from the youngest-ever senator at the age of 25, Nikolai Edwards, to Helon Francis, 29, the former Calypso Monarch appointed on Monday, we can be proud that we have a strong, dynamic parliamentary tradition in this country.