By Cassian M Fernando –
Political philosophers classify constitutions in a number of ways. Unitary or Federal; Written or Unwritten; Rigid or Flexible; Democratic or Totalitarian; Unicameral or Bicameral.
As the proposed constitutional reforms suggest the creation of a second chamber this article attempts to discuss the merits and demerits’ of a second chamber. Under the Constitution of 1947 Sri Lanka had a Second Chamber the Senate. In terms of the provisions of the said constitution the Minister of Justice was always from the Senate. As a matter of fact Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike entered politics as a senator. However in the 1972 constitution the Senate was altogether abolished.
In a Bicameral system the relation between the two chambers vary. In some countries both have equal powers, while in most, one chamber is superior to the other. Those who argue in favour of two chambers claim that
The second chamber has a modifying effect on legislation. It acts as brake against hasty, ill-considered and rash legislation. It acts as a check on hasty legislation. Members to a lower chamber are elected by direct vote of the people very often incompetent to elect the most competent to represent them. They are liable to be swayed by popular sentiment. The second chamber exercises a controlling, modifying, retarding and studying influence on legislation. By interposing delay between introduction and adoption of a bill, the second chamber permits time for further reflection and deliberation.
The second chamber can be used to give adequate representations for minorities and other special interests who cannot expect to get their representations in an elected chamber.
In the second chamber representations can be given to intellectuals, artists, and scientists. These people are generally election shy and do not like to undergo the botheration of elections. The second chamber can thus be made a reservoir of knowledge and intellect. The lower House is a People’s Chamber while the other is a Chamber of Statesmen and veteran politicians providing mature leadership guiding the masses. Renounced persons can be honoured by appointing them to this Chamber. The legislature can benefit from their expertise and experienced knowledge.
A second Chamber can act as a Revisionary Chamber. It can be a second filter bed where the technical flaws of bills can be removed.
A second Chamber usually acts as a Delaying Chamber providing time for cool reflection and further deliberation.
A second Chamber checks the despotism of the lower Chamber, preventing tyrannical action. An omnipotent single chamber can bring death knell to democracy. On the contrary a Second Chamber prevents misuse of uncontrolled power and prevents legislative despotism.
A second Chamber is a useful alternative to total federalism. Adequate minority representations can be made in the Second Chamber.
Second Chambers are expected to represent functional interests like Industry, Trade, Agriculture Profession that are not normally represented in an elected Chamber.
Those who oppose a Second Chamber maintain that
Such a Chamber stifles the will of the people and is undesirable that a imported body should choke the voice of the people. Democracy cannot speak in two voices Second chamber is an outworn creed with a desire to reconcile with the minorities
Second Chambers are generally considered to be the citadels of reactions and conservatism, and acts as brake in the wheel of democracy. Prof Harold Laski rejects the view that a second chamber is a necessary check against hasty rash and ill-considered legislation. In actual fact bills are thoroughly discussed and examined by a committee of experts when they are presented as such the revisionary function of a second chamber does not arise. In the present day context bills are thoroughly discussed by the media and wide publicity is given to the contents.
If both houses are controlled by the same party what is passed in one house will automatically be passed in the other house as well. If the two houses are controlled by two different parties this will lead to political impasse and forward march of implementing a government policy will be stalled. And even prevented.
A second chamber enjoys the delaying power. And if miss used will delay the implementation of progressive and urgent legislation. Prof Laski says ‘The power to postpone is power to defeat the changes regarded as necessary by the party chosen to power by the people – The electorate.’
Experience has shown that second chambers seldom provide an effective check on hasty and ill-considered legislation but only frequently provide deadlocks and leg pulling practices and shows lack of responsibility.
A second Chamber except in the Unites States play a subordinate role in legislation, which led Abbe to comment that it is superfluous if the second chamber agrees with the lower chamber and it is mischievous if it descents.
A bicameral legislature in the words of Benjamin Franklin is like a cart with a horse tied to each of the ends, the two horses polling in opposite directions. It is like a house dived against itself and is incompatible with peoples sovereignty.
As against the false belief a second chamber cannot give adequate representations to minority interests. Members in a upper house votes as the same way the members in a lower house will do. They have to obey the dictates of the party to which they belong That the second chamber will provide an enlightened view is only a myth and never happens in reality.
There is no universal method of constituting a Second Chamber. In Uk members of the House of Lords are mostly hereditary. In Canada the members are nominated by the Governor General. In India the Raj Sabha is partly elected by the legislature and part nominated by the President The lack of a well determined standard as to how a Second Chamber should constitute is also a draw back for the creation of a second Chamber.
It is a known and established political concept that legislation functions not the way the framer want it to be but the way operators make them out to be. In such a scenario taking cognition of the situation prevailing in Sri Lanka where people defeated by the electorate end up as Ministers will the second chamber be another depository for political goons and big businessmen who are financiers of political parties.
At what cost will a second chamber be established, the salaries, the fringe benefits the luxury cars and all others of 53 Second Chamber Members will have to come from the tax payers monies. Will it be another white elephant. Why was the Senate abolished? Was it considered to have performed no useful functions? In the recent past no political party canvassed for an second Chamber. How did such a proposal get in to the draft placed before Parliament?
There has to be a very wide discussion before the proposal to establish a Second Chamber is seriously considered.