16 October, 2021


For & Against A Second Chamber

By Cassian M Fernando

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.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Cassian M Fernando: New york State is less than 55000 Sq, Miles. has just one govt. Sri lanka is just 25000 Sq miles and has 10 govts including the centrl a govt. During the 9/11 it was revealed that there were 119 minorities living in New york. How many minorities Sri lanka has. Why Sri lankan politics this messy and cumbersome affair ?. Who is going pay money and look after it when Women working in the middle east and when youth workig in south Korea won’t be able to bear the tab ?. Why peole are this destructive because they want to play ethnic politics ?. Sri lankan provincial councils all should be named municipalities.

  • 1

    There has to be a second chamber.

    We need to have fewer provinces.

    Like :
    Northern, Eastern, Southern, western, North Central , Central. == 6 as opposed to current 9.

    There has to be a special room or space for the second chamber. The method of election has to be Proportional Method as opposed to Preferential , First Past the post method….50% has to be female representing females in society…….There should be fixed number of candidates to the upper house from each province…so if 20 per province = 6 x 20 =120

    The lower house election method should be : Electorate based , Preferential First past the post NOT like what we have today where the WHOLE district is the electorate…>>>This is the root cause of corruption and helplessness the voters feel about the political process….There is NO way to get back at a BAD, inefficient politican..whatever their ethnicity , party or gender….

    This should be the first step and then we can abolish provincial councils and give power the MPs and senators that get elected from that province to run the province for a fixed term say 4 years……

    May be we should have a popularly elected Prime Minister and no President at ALL.

  • 0

    I heard once new elections are finished, there will be 10,000 politicians and the total work force working for the polticians will exceed 17,000. Who will pay for these. Are your people ready to bear the cost ?

  • 1

    you cannot have a second chamber and provincial councils -one has to go
    already taxpayers are financing three tiers can a small country like ours afford four ?
    no way. only a lunatic will support both, so forget the senate unless provincial councils are abolished first. god save us from another bunch of corrupt politicians

  • 0

    I was holding on to my thoughts, watching out for the reaction from avid commentators. I am disappointed that nobody – at least among the ones who have commented thus far – has come up with any sensible line of arguments.
    Cassian M Fernando has stated the obvious, fit for a right thinking electorate. His is a theoretical exercise.
    Sri Lanka, with a parochial-minded set of politicians, can never be trusted to ‘chose’ the right members for the Second Chamber.
    There is no chance that the Senate would be able to crack the glass ceiling!

  • 1

    The former regime had huge jumbo cabinet, perks to MPs and so on. We installed s new lot on 08 January 2014 No change at all. We still have to foot the extravagant perks.
    One can read the angst in Cassian M Fernando’s hopes in a Second Chamber. No Sir. We will only paying more, for more perks. Our stumbling block is our obdurate mindsets. One aspect of the mindset of MPs is their belief that they are there to increase their wealth.
    A second chamber will not result in checks and balance.
    Perhaps we must try making cross-over illegal. Recently a deputy minister crossed over. He is placing his bets on a change in GoSL.

  • 0

    “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. “
    I may be wrong, but is anything worse than a second chamber full of artists like Paba ,scientists like Nalin De Silva and intellectuals like Dr. Vermin Silva?

    When the country actually has real examples of these categories , we can implement a second chamber. Otherwise, we will have a duplicate bunch of duty-free entitled clowns.

    • 1

      old codger

      “I may be wrong, but is anything worse than a second chamber full of artists like Paba ,scientists like Nalin De Silva and intellectuals like Dr. Vermin Silva?”

      Let these nutters and public racists represent like minded nutters and racists in the second chamber while intellectuals, artists, and scientists can fill the third chamber.

  • 0

    The Senate was abloliished because it was always UNP majority. So Sirima government didn’t want it. Sri Lanka should’ve waited to become a republic. 72 was too soon. 90s would have been ideal.

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