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100% Payroll Vote!?No Backbenchers in the House of Representative!

As of the government’s latest Cabinet reshuffle, there is officially no political “backbenchers” on the majority side of Belize’s House of Representatives, Business Senator Kevin Herrera highlighted on Thursday.


“The whole concept of backbenchers is supposed to provide some oversight of the Executive Branch of Government,” reminded Herrera. “Then, if there are no backbenchers, then that almost implies that there is no oversight on the Executive other than what is provided in the Senate.”



Herrera was speaking in reference to the recent appointments of Hon. Jorge Espat, Hon Marconi Leal, and Hon. Luis “Alex” Balona to ministerial posts. Espat, according to the government’s release, “joins the Ministry of Finance, Economic Development, Investment, Civil Aviation, and Immigration as Minister of State for Investment.


Leal is now the Minister of State in the Ministry of Infrastructure Development and Housing, and Balona is now the Minister of State in the Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security and Enterprise.

The appointments now officially make all three men subject to what is conventionally dubbed the “Payroll Vote”.


By definition, as Senator Herrera reminded, the payroll vote speaks to the votes from members of the House of Representatives who hold government offices such as ministers or junior ministers (or “Ministers of State”). Given the fact that the holders of these offices are actually paid by the Executive, they are, therefore, often expected to vote in line with government policies, regardless of their personal views or interests of their respective constituents.


Herrera lamented the fact that this practice significantly undermines the checks and balances essential for a healthy democracy.



“It raises a very interesting question: How Committees and those areas will function now,” said Herrera. “Certainly through the House Committees I could see a limitation there because everyone will be part of a Ministry now. You cannot oversee yourself. That is the dilemma we face in the House of Representative.”


Interestingly, it may also have implications for the role of Deputy Speaker, as the Standing Order No. 4 states the following:

 

“At the first meeting of the House of Representatives after a general election and before the House proceeds to the despatch of any other business except the election of Speaker, so soon as the Speaker has been elected the House shall proceed to the election of one of its Members, not being a Minister, to be Deputy Speaker of the House.”


It is unclear whether the meaning and interpretation of Rule 4 will preclude a minister of state from being appointed as Deputy Speaker; however, even if legally allowed, Herrera’s comments regarding oversight also raises concerns as it pertains to objectivity that can be expected in this particular role.


Dissenting Opinion from Political Reform Commission of 2000

The matter of the payroll vote has come up multiple times in Belize’s post-independence history. During the Political Reform Commission (PRC) of 2000, for example, the Commission’s Recommendation 34 had, inter alia, agreed to maintain the function of the Minister of State. It did seek to balance the role by saying that such junior ministers would not be considered members of Cabinet.


At the time, then PRC commissioner and present-day Senate President Carolyn Trench-Sandiford had issued a dissenting opinion against Recommendation 34. At the time, she wrote:


“Recommendation 34 effectively neutralizes Recommendation 32 which sought to limit the number of the members of the National Assembly who could become members of the Cabinet; thus, reducing the influence of the Cabinet of the National Assembly. If Ministers of State are appointed from the National Assembly, they, in reality and practice, become members of the Cabinet, despite any Constitutional amendment which may state otherwise.”


Sandiford went on to argue the point saying, “From the mere fact that they attend Cabinet meetings and participate in discussions, they take an oath of allegiance, and are obligated to execute the policies of the Ministry of which they are the Minister of State. This effectively and undoubtedly make them part and parcel of the Cabinet, increasing the Cabinet’s influence in the House, which defeats Recommendation 32 and renders it useless. I, therefore, reject totally Recommendation 34 of this report.”


Material or Immaterial

In practice, in Belize, it is true that the small number of backbenchers have hardly even held sufficient numbers to have adequately fulfilled the oversight duties that are conventionally expected. As a result, it is possible to argue that the loss of the three backbenchers will have no material impact.


Nevertheless, as Herrera had underscored, the change simply means that it is the Upper House that must continue to provide that oversight function.

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