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Constitutional Reform: Former PM shares thoughts on ‘Crossing the Floor’

“It is a matter of degrees. Maybe you might want to say causing the person to lose their seat in the House of Representatives is going too far, but I would not agree that a Party cannot impose any sanctions at all.”

This is how former prime minister Right Honorable Dean Barrow responded to The Reporter’s question on whether a desired outcome of the ongoing Constitutional Reform process is to have section 59(e) and its related provisions removed from the Belize Constitution.

The Backdrop

The provision, introduced after the Political Reform Commission (PRC) of 2000, reads:

“A member of the House of Representatives shall also vacate his seat in the House […] if, having been a candidate of a political party and elected to the House of Representatives as a candidate of that political party, he resigns from that political party or crosses the floor.”

In the conventions of parliamentary parlance, “crossing the floor” (anti-defection legislation) speaks to the instance in which the member of a Party, among other things, votes against his own Party’s position.

However, in Belize, during the PRC’s deliberation two decades ago, it was unclear what definition would be applied.

For context, the PRC’s report states:

“In examining the issue, the Commission [PRC of 2000] reviewed the anti-defection legislation and experience of other nations in the Commonwealth. In this review, it became clear to the Commission that the most critical aspect of developing a recommendation was to decide what exactly constitutes defection or crossing of the floor. Based on the experience of other nations, the definition could include at least the following four scenarios: Elected representatives in the House of Representatives who:

1. Resign from a political party that has seats in the House; 2. Cross the floor and joins another political party in the House; 3. Vote against their political party in the House without party permission; 4. Abstain from voting with their political party in the House without party permission.”

The records show that the PRC Commissioners agreed unanimously on points numbers 1 and 2, but were unable to settle on the last two (numbers 3 and 4)."

Notably, the PRC recommended specific legislation to have been provided that would delineate the conditions of crossing the floor. This, however, has never occurred, and the change was only made in section 59(2) of the Constitution.

Removing the Whip

Returning to The Reporter’s interview with former Prime Minister Hon. Dean Barrow, he opined that he would not call for the complete removal of the Crossing-the-Floor (CtF) provision but could concede that a softer sanction could be considered.

“Even if you remove the Crossing the Floor [from the Constitution], the Party can ‘Remove the Whip’ from those who vote against their Party,” Barrow underscored.

He added that it is difficult for him to envision a system that would not afford political parties in Parliament any means to sanction their members of Parliament who “vote against their party.”

Barrow’s reference to “Removing the Whip” speaks to a practice seen in other Parliamentary Democracies such as the United Kingdom, where members who vote against their party’s position do not lose their seat in Parliament but are essentially ostracized from their party as a form of discipline.

The Member of Parliament would then be classified as an “independent”—not affiliated with any party in Parliament.

The Free Vote

Barrow argued that the idea to change section 59(2)(e) is not something that he can see resulting in any real and material change. “If you operate it maturely, the Government should allow a free vote,” said Barrow.

The free vote is also known as the conscience vote, where area representatives are granted the license to vote as they please during a division of the House.

Barrow also reminded that even with the current provision, any party and the member in question must go through a process before an action is formally declared as a scenario constituting “crossing the floor.”

Fundamentally, it is yet to be seen what the Belizean people’s input and recommendations to the People’s Constitution Commission will be (if any) as it pertains to this clause in the country’s supreme law that was introduced via the PRC.

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