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Constitutional Reform: Assessing the Effectiveness of Parliamentary Democracy

By Dyon A. Elliott


As most would already know, even if only casually so, Belize is currently going through a Constitutional Reform process. The magnitude of an exercise that could lead to an entirely new constitution should not be lost on anyone.


Individuals will approach this reform process from varying vantage points and with varying priorities. For some, the priority areas are very agenda-specific. And please note that while some pejoratively use that word, from a policy vantage point, agenda means the issues/problems that stakeholders (government or non-government alike) are paying close attention to and for which they are prescribing solutions.


"Agenda Setting,” therefore, becomes a competitive process with different stakeholder groups vying for the winners’ rights to (i) define the "problem” and (ii) have their proposed solution prevail over all others.


We see this, for example, with the "Gun Control" debate in the United States. We also see it on the matter of high inflation in Belize, with the government and the private sector divided over how best to address the issue. We saw this with Brexit in the United Kingdom.


Those few examples demonstrate how policy issues could be quite intricate. The agenda that (ultimately) takes the lead in the policy race is often the one that benefits from (or takes advantage of) multiple factors, including (higher) political capital and the state of "policy windows.” (See more in Kingdon’s Multiple Streams framework).


Constitutional Reform Agenda: Pinnacle of Complexities


If single policy issues can be so complex and intricate, then we can see the gargantuan task of Constitutional Reform. Within this process, everyone involved and paying attention has ideas about how to improve things (i.e., an agenda or two).


For example, there are those who believe that Belize would be better off if she abandons the Monarchy and goes full Republic. Others argue the complete opposite.


Some posit that the bureaucratic ills of the public service can be cured by a return to Permanent Secretaries, and others retort that the politically appointed CEOs are best. The Church promulgates a more conservative social-policy agenda while more progressive associations advance more liberal views.


Should the ineligibility criteria for Parliamentarians be expanded or diminished á la the proposed Belize Constitution (Eleventh Amendment) Bill? Should Diaspora rights be augmented? Should there be a fixed schedule set for General Elections? Should the "payroll vote" be reduced? What's up with crossing the floor? Elected or appointed Senate? Indigenous rights. Balance of rights. Ministerial discretion. Freedom of the Press. And the list could go on for miles. All of these are legitimate, agenda-setting questions.

And that’s before we even enter hot-button topics such as oversight mechanisms and anti-corruption institutions. But these are all targets, goals, and agendas that still have to work within a particular ecosystem of institutions that ultimately determine their level of effectiveness and success.


'Parliamentary Effectiveness' Agenda: Ecosystem For Good Governance


And this brings me to the point regarding Parliamentary (system) Effectiveness. The word "effective" carries a straightforward definition: "The degree to which something is successful in producing a desired result" or "typically describes things—such as policies, treatments, arguments, and techniques—that do what they are intended to do."


And, at this point, allow me to quote Steve Jobs: "If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution."


Please keep that quote in mind when answering this question: Is Belize suffering from a Constitution that lacks certain key rights or protections and institutions, OR is it chiefly a question of ineffective systems?


For example, does Belize’s Constitution establish mechanisms to oversee government spending? The answer would be "YES”. We have the Auditor General’s Office and other structures set up for precisely that purpose. However, with the definition of effectiveness in mind, what is the frequency with which have audits of the government’s budget been produced and publicized?


If there have been significant delays, is the root of the problem a Constitutional one, or something else?


Not too long ago, we saw an attorney complain that he could not see his client who was detained under the State of Emergency (SOE). Does Section 19(1)(d) of the existing Constitution address things like this? Very much, Yes! It literally states:


"When a person is detained by virtue of a law that authorizes the taking during a period of public emergency [...] he shall be afforded reasonable facilities for private communication and consultation with a legal practitioner of his own choice.”


Of course, hypothetically speaking, someone yells: "Oh, we need to amend the Constitution to ensure that persons arrested/detained during SOEs can have access to their attorneys!!!"


However, while we could appreciate that person's AGENDA, is it possible that he has mistaken the problem and, by extension, the proposed remedy?


The Constitution already provides right, but is its implementation as EFFECTIVE as it needs to be? And if not, that's a structural deficiency that may or may NOT require a Constitutional amendment (but maybe just a protocol set in place).


Measuring Parliamentary Effectiveness: IPU Indicators

Of course, the natural next question becomes this: How can we assess the degree of Effectiveness of our Democratic Parliamentary system? Is there a benchmark to look at? Short answer: there are several benchmarks. One such benchmark is provided by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU)'s Indicators for Democratic Parliaments.


Now, the IPU’s indicators are far too involved for one article. We are talking about a hundred and eleven (111) indicators. This will have to be an ongoing discussion.


Following the IPU’s methodology, the accompanying images for Dimensions 1.1.1 and 1.1.2 assess Belize's Parliament’s Institutional Autonomy and Belize's Parliament’s "Procedural Autonomy,” respectively.


For Institutional Autonomy, based on the laws and sections of the Constitution reviewed, my own estimates give an average score that translates to roughly 73%. (Note: I converted it to a percentage as it's easier to communicate).


Regarding Procedural Autonomy, Belize's Parliament was assessed at 78%.


In both cases, there is conspicuous room for improvement. The next question, then, becomes one of what steps should be taken to improve it.


Now, some would say that I'm too harsh, and others might say I'm too lenient. Either is perfectly fine because while the manual tells us to provide evidence in the Constitution or other laws, the reality is that people will interpret certain things differently. And that's perfect because constructive debates on Constitutional reform are actually healthy to the process.


With that said, the REAL purpose of this post is to encourage those of you who have made it this far to actually take on the task and assess the system yourself using IPU's assessment tool. The link to the said tool is found in the Reference section below.


In The End

In summary, it is in my humble opinion that many of the things that Belizeans say they need or want added to the Constitution may already be provided for in the Constitution—with few exceptions.


From where I sit, the "problem" is not predominantly one of absence in the Constitution but rather a question of degree of Effectiveness, which may or may not require a Constitutional amendment. But to help distinguish between the two possibilities, it helps to have an objective framework and benchmark from which to work. One such frame is that provided by the IPU’s working document.


Reference:

IPU (2022). “Indicators for democratic parliaments based on SDG targets 16.6 and 16.7.” Available at: https://www.parliamentaryindicators.org/all-indicators?fbclid=IwAR0TkFfVBOKkeg1TyGP7Um7Df8SUJDnOIWaihTnbkkRToXZ5_4dCyLfvupg.

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